The government’s pledge to reduce plastic waste is a step in the right direction – but it’s equally vital to protect our natural resources such as bees, says Professor Simon Potts, co-chair of a UN group working to safeguard the world’s pollinators, in a new post for The Conversation.
The four Alternative Food Network trends, and how they are changing the way we eat
By Professor Mike Goodman, Professor of Environment and Development/Human Geography, University of Reading.
Professor Goodman appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today on Monday (8 May), to discuss the growth of Alternative Food Networks. Here he explains more about how they are evolving and why they face a cloudy future.
Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) in the UK—what we might think of as a loose confederation of actors working for a more ecologically, socially and economically friendly food system—are coming of age.
No longer are shoppers only confronted by wilted, dirty organic lettuce picked by ‘back to the landers’ wanting to live alternative lifestyles off the grid. AFNs are now not just at the forefront of quality food revolution for the ‘worried well’ and that of the technological revolution about how we grow and eat food, but, more problematically, are also on the frontlines of feeding the so-called ‘JAMs’ (just-about-making it) and economically marginal populations who are not getting enough to eat. Continue reading
Is a minimum price for alcohol the best way to stop Britain boozing?
Professor Richard Tiffin from the Centre for Food Security ponders on whether introducing a minimum price per unit will calm our drinking culture.
Introducing a minimum price for alcohol has been back in the news, 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.
Do they know it’s Christmas?
Food prices hit low income groups hardest in UK but have a much greater impact in the developing world. Professor Richard Tiffin from the University of Reading’s Centre for Food Security explains why.
Last week saw the publication of the UK Government’s Family Food Survey for 2011. The report, which for the first time in some years, includes elasticities of demand estimated by our own Centre for Food Security, highlights the impact of an overall 26% increase in the price of the UK’s food between 2007 and 2011. Increases in the price of fruit and lamb of 26% and 55% in that period, for example, have resulted in reduced purchases of 10% and 33%, respectively.
It is important to recognise that these price changes do not affect the population evenly. In the UK we spend on average 11% of our income on food. This rises to 17% when we look at the 20% of households with the lowest levels of income. As a result, changes in food purchases are larger amongst low income groups. For example, the reduction in fruit consumption rises to 16% when only low income households are included. Because low income households spend more on food and food prices have increased by more than those of other goods, the inflation rate affecting low income households is higher. Between 2006 and 2009 the inflation rate for the lowest 10% of households by income was over 13%, whilst that for the highest was just over 11%.
The difference in the proportion of income spent on food is even starker when considering the picture globally. In Ethiopia, for example, the average household spends 60% of its income on food. In a world where, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the price of food is one and half times higher than in 2000, the impact on these households is clear. Increased expenditure is not an option and all that can be done is to trade-down and reduce food consumption. The factors causing these price rises are complex and include climate change, growth in demand from middle income countries and closer integration between energy and food markets. What is clear however is that the impact on food consumption in the developing world is potentially devastating.
As Christmas parties rock to the sound of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ it is worth reflecting that almost thirty years after Band Aid, we still have a billion hungry people on the planet and a further billion suffering from malnutrition. A famine not dissimilar to that which prompted Bob Geldof into action is unfolding in the Sahel where cereal production is 26% below last year; Chad and Gambia are experiencing 50% reductions. Prices will rise as supply fails to meet demand and as a result more than 16 million people are officially at risk.
Combining the old with the new is the recipe for global food security
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’.
Delays in food research investment make meeting demand that much harder
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!