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Introducing a minimum price for alcohol is back in the news today, with claims that the government is planning to back-track on its commitment to introduce a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol.  This is perhaps not surprising since the case for its introduction has never been made with any degree of clarity and it is relatively easy to provide evidence for very mixed and perhaps undesirable impacts.  For example it is clear that the tax will have little impact on the price of alcohol sold “on-licence” where the average price of alcohol is already £1.16 per unit.  It’s also unclear whether the tax will target the people who really matter.  Perhaps surprisingly, highest alcohol consumption occurs amongst people who are classified as being in “high managerial” occupations and the lowest levels are amongst the unemployed.  Because the unemployed tend to consume cheap drink however, they will bear more of the burden of the minimum price along with people in the North East, single parents and the over sixties.

There is no doubt that for many individuals alcohol consumption is dangerously high, and that the trend in alcohol consumption is worrying.  Using price to tackle this is attractive because virtually everyone understands the law of demand: price up, quantity down. But the apparent simplicity of this law is deceptive: first because changes in quantity are marginal, people with high levels of consumption continue to drink a lot, just a bit less than before; and second, because people will substitute some of the reduction in more expensive spirits with wine for which the price doesn’t change.

We should recognise that drinking is a deeply cultural activity and for some it is undoubtedly a form of self-medication. Attempts to address the problem should be framed accordingly.  Like smoking, real progress will only be made when it is clear that high levels of alcohol consumption are culturally unacceptable.  Further, increasing the financial pressure on those that are least able to cope with it may worsen the problems that lead to self-medication.

There is no doubt that we should remove the “cheap booze” culture from society and that doing so will save lives.  The question remains however as to whether putting the price up is too simplistic a way of addressing this problem.

On world food day Professor Richard Tiffin from the University’s Centre for Food Security discusses the challenges faced when meeting the global demand for food.

The present debate around how best to meet the global demand for food has a tendency to polarise into two camps.  First there are those who argue that the food system is broken and what is required is a return to more ‘traditional’ ways in which food is produced on labour intensive small farms and distributed locally.  In the opposite corner are technologists who argue that the only way that we will be able to meet the predicted increase in demand for food of between fifty and one hundred per cent, is to continue the process of intensification that characterised the development of agriculture during the twentieth century.  Instead of this polarisation however perhaps some cross fertilisation is necessary.

A return to a more traditional agriculture has some appeal.  There is no denying that small scale production gives a better looking countryside and increased rural employment.  Its diversified products also provide a nice contrast to the commoditised food products that dominate the supermarket shelves.  In a more subtle way the greater diversity of the farming system employed on these units may provide us with a greater degree of resilience in the face of increased risk of extreme weather events which climate change brings.  

This is all logical but the problems arise when attempts are made to scale the approach up to meet a much larger part of our food needs.  Increased labour intensity demands more labour and we have to ask where this will come from.  ‘New-lifers’ can only go so far, farms will need to reverse the reality of the labour market in which non-agricultural jobs have better conditions and therefore draw people out of the sector.  It is sometimes overlooked that farm employment is often dangerous, cold, wet, depressing and poorly paid. 

The argument becomes much more dangerous, however, when we apply it to developing countries.  Here the small scale sector is often vital in ensuring short term food security, but to argue that it should remain so risks consigning these countries to a permanently less developed state.  The process of agricultural intensification must be seen as one component of the process of economic development.  Blocking agricultural development will stop the release of labour (and other resources) from agriculture which drives growth in other sectors of the economy.  Without this, growing populations may or may not have enough food, but they will be without the services that are necessary to support their inevitably more urban lifestyles.

So, we are left with a situation in which ‘intensification’ must continue, but we must also learn from the practitioners of ‘traditional’ agriculture.  These farmers are acutely aware of the fact that food production is not an industrial process.  Food is, at least in part, a product of nature.  This is a fact that seems not have escaped the food consumer, where all the evidence points to the fact that ‘natural’ food is valued.  The implication is that we cannot divorce our food production from the ecosystem which supports it.  Changes in our farming system have implications for the other things which our ecosystem gives us, for example biodiversity and carbon cycling.  Equally changes in the ecosystem, for example reductions in the population of pollinators, have implications for food production.

There are some encouraging signs that a middle way may become our focus.

The concept of sustainable intensification is on the agenda.  This recognises that we must not stop the search for new ways of producing food but that we should do so in ways which work with nature rather than in a box apart from it.  We should learn from our traditions but not harp back to them.  By 2050 there will be 2bn more people in the world, 1.9bn of whom will be in developing countries.  We owe it to them.

Professor Richard Tiffin is Director for the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading. Richard is an Agricultural Economist and his current research is focused on diet and health policy, in particular the impacts of fiscal policies with the objective of improving dietary health, such as so-called ‘fat tax’.

Katherine Livingstone, a PhD student (supervised by Professors Ian Givens and Julie Lovegrove) studying the effect of lipids in dairy foods on risk of cardiovascular disease was earlier this year awarded a ‘Short Term Scientific Mission’ grant from the EU COST Project ‘Feed for Health’ (www.feedforhealth.org) to work in a laboratory in Finland on the identification of trans fatty acids in dairy products. She presented some of her findings at a COST conference in Copenhagen and was selected by the COST project to be one of the organisers of a workshop for Early Stage Researchers which was held in the University of Barcelona on 7-8 June 2012. This event was called ‘Feed Your Knowledge’ and details are available on http://www.feedforhealth.org/default.asp?ZNT=S0T1O803 The event covered key aspects of sustainability, nutrition, food safety etc. in the food chain and the University of Reading was well represented on the programme.

Katherine is to be congratulated on being a key driver of this event and in so doing she has been a real ambassador for the University of Reading.

Delegates in Barcelona (Katherine on extreme right, second row from front)

Ruth Evans is leading an international collaborative research project on access to land, food security and the intergenerational transmission of poverty in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana with Dr. Simon Mariwah and Dr. Barima Antwi, Department of Geography and Regional Planning, University of Cape Coast, Ghana (funded by IIF and SHES, University of Reading).

Follow the link to find out more: http://www.reading.ac.uk/geographyandenvironmentalscience/Research/HER/ges-RE-Ghana.aspx

One component of food security is to try and improve crop yields to produce more food, more consistently, by reducing the impact of disease. Diseases are caused by a variety of pathogens and one of our major strategies for preventing disease outbreaks is the employment of resistant varieties of plants – these are plants that sense the presence of pathogen molecules (“flags”) through naturally-occurring surveillance systems and can then rapidly react to arrest infection. This process can vary from strengthening the plant cells, making them harder to penetrate, to production of a variety of antimicrobial chemicals that act to kill the bacteria, through to “hari-kiri” suicide of plant cells to quarantine the pathogen to the site of infection and prevent further spread in the plant. This torrent of plant activity results in an anti-microbial “hot zone”, but the success of the plants immune system in acting to stop pathogen infection can also be its downfall – because the pathogens can rapidly adapt by evolution to overcome the plants immune system, and they seem to do it due to the plants immune reaction. The pathogen can do this by either turning off genes to hide the “flags” or just by entirely ejecting the genes so that they don’t “flag” themselves up anymore. To better understand how the pathogen adapts to the plant “hot zones”, Robert Jackson (School of Biological Sciences), Dawn Arnold (UWE, Bristol) and Gail Preston (Oxford) were recently awarded over £550k by the BBSRC to employ two research assistants to work on this. The aim is to identify the plant compounds produced during an immune response and to pinpoint which ones are the triggers for bacteria to turn off their “flags”. The way in which the pathogen senses and responds to the plant “hot zone” compounds will also be studied. By combining these approaches, it is hoped that our knowledge of pathogen evolution and plant immunity will be improved. In turn, it may be possible to breed plants that maintain disease resistance but make less of the compounds that trigger pathogen evolution. And hopefully this will help to improve disease resistance and reduce crop losses to increase food supplies to future generations.

Peter Gregory is Professor of Global Food Security and contributes to building research programmes in the University’s Centre for Food Security. One of his research focuses is in global environmental changes and food security. Throughout his career Professor Gregory has been engaged with issues of increasing crop yields especially in drought-prone, rainfed environments.

After many decades in which food security has not been an issue of much interest to many in the developed world, suddenly it’s back on the political and scientific agendas. The sudden spike in food prices in 2008/09 awakened interest once again in the issue, and the realisation that our insatiable demand for more food in response to a growing population with higher average incomes provides many social and scientific challenges.

This was some of the background to the session on food security that I organised with my co-organisers Mike Bushell of Syngenta and Ken Cassman from the University of Nebraska at the Planet Under Pressure conference held from 26-29 March in London as the scientific prelude to the Rio+20 Conference which will commence later this month. The session explored how the agronomic yield gap interacts with economic and nutritional ‘gaps’ to produce food insecurity and what interventions might correct this.

The session attracted the second largest number of contributions in the conference, but the limited time meant that we could hear only five oral contributions with the remaining forty or so as posters. Dr Marianne Banziger of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center gave the opening keynote in which she outlined the global challenges facing producers. She noted that publicly-funded agricultural research in developed countries is now only 25% of its level in the 1980s despite the threats posed by a changing climate and the increasing scarcity or costs of natural resources such as land, water and energy.

Other presentations demonstrated the nutritional paucity of many current crops produced in sub-Saharan Africa especially for vitamins A and C, potassium and other minerals, and the skipping of meals, especially by females, as a means of adapting to hardships such as flooding. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, livestock are an essential component of the agricultural system. A village-level survey in 96 villages across nine different countries in these two regions confirmed that crop residues are valuable sources of animal feed, fuel and construction materials; this limits their use for longer-term ecological services such as mulch for soil protection, water conservation and potential carbon sequestration. Households were most vulnerable where pressure on biomass was greatest. In Indonesia, a study of food availability and incidence of malnutrition showed that the two were not directly related; rather malnutrition was determined by food intake pattern which was a reflection of socio-cultural behaviour.

The session elicited a great deal of discussion about how the vulnerability of groups at risk of malnutrition might be alleviated. Three interesting observations were: i) the more we delay investment in food research, the steeper the challenge of meeting demands will become; we have to increase production of wheat, rice and maize by about 30-40% faster than we currently are; ii) cell phones provide a new possibility for getting locally targeted and up-to-date information to farmers and markets in rural areas; and iii) food security needs to pay greater attention to the nutritional value of food and not focus so much on the yield and calorific value of cereals.

I shall be following up these presentations and other food-related sessions at the conference as we develop the international programme of work associated with the Centre for Food Security at Reading. I am currently writing a paper on Soils and Food Security as part of a special publication by The Royal Society of Chemistry that arose from the London meeting, and am working with a colleague at Oxford University to take forward a potential international programme of work on sustainable intensification of food systems in temperate regions. There’s much to be done!

Our colleagues at Rothamsted are to be applauded for the way in which they have brought the GM debate to the fore this week.  At one level the case being made for an experiment to gather evidence on a modification that improves resistance to aphids appears undeniable.  How can we hope to evaluate the dangers that these technologies might present without experimental evidence.  Of course there is a slight risk associated with carrying out this experiment but this is the price that we pay for the evidence it will provide.  One of the questions that recurs is why is GM being singled out?  It is after all just an extension, or speeding up, of the breeding programmes that have underpinned much of the improvement in productivity that we have witnessed in agriculture.  Moreover, GM food has been produced and consumed outside Europe for years, and there is no evidence to suggest that anyone’s health has been adversely affected.

Perhaps there are more complex reasons for the continued opposition to GM.  Some argue that, beyond the hard-line activists, it is a reflection of widespread concern over what might be termed the industrialisation of the food system.  In a world where our food supply is going to be increasingly challenged it is important that we begin to tackle this fear.  Increased production of food is only going to happen with some significant transformation in the food system.  Increased food prices are the first signs of a system that is being stretched and wherever you are in the world, increased food prices mean that difficult nutritional choices have to be made by low income households.  Things will have to change if our food system is to sustain the ability to deliver affordable nutritious food.  In many cases these changes will be painful and will result in a food system that is some distance from our bucolic ideal.  But this has always been so, it was not so long ago that a one hundred cow dairy herd was thought of as an industrial operation.  The food industry cannot afford to ignore these concerns but equally we must all accept that change is necessary.  We have moved from an era in which the primary production of food was seen as a by-product of delivering our cherished rural environments to one in which it is of vital strategic importance.  With this change however must come an acceptance that the age old processes of technological and structural change will continue.

By Professor Richard Tiffin, Director, Centre for Food Security