This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures published by Forum for the Future by Jonathon Porritt 

Jonathon Porritt finds the Government’s response to food security “creative” – but can’t forgive its failure to address population issues

People listen to the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor – especially when his careful analysis reflects their own intuitive angst. So it’s not surprising that Sir John Beddington’s “perfect storm” hypothesis – that rising demand for energy, water and food will have a massively damaging effect on the global economy by 2030 – has had a huge impact.

But setting the convergence point for his perfect storm way out there in 2030 never made much sense to me. The dramatic spike in oil and food prices in 2008 indicated a near-term emergency rather than a potential medium-term crisis. 

Three years on, prices are spiking again in ways that have got the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) twitching with barely concealed panic. In February, oil went back through the $100-a-barrel threshold. Grain prices (as well as other food commodities) soared to new highs. Two-thirds of China’s wheat-growing areas are seriously affected by drought – with a massive potential impact on this year’s harvest. When the FAO announced this news, it sent tremors through the governments of all those countries where bread remains the staple food. These include Egypt and other North African states, where rising food prices were one of the triggers for mass unrest.

Not so much a perfect storm perhaps, but yet another curtain-raising gale. Which makes it a compellingly good moment for the UK’s Government Office for Science to launch its blockbuster report on The Future of Food and Farming. Its aim: “to identify the decisions that policymakers need to make today, and in the years ahead, to ensure that a global population rising to 9 billion or more can be fed sustainably and equitably”. In other words, it’s all about food security.

And a very good job the report does too. It’s strong on food waste: if we can sort out the fact that anywhere between 30% and 50% of the food grown doesn’t get onto people’s plates, we’ll be much better placed to do the rest. And it’s strong on science and technology – although campaigners against genetic modification will be aggrieved that the report endorses the potential contribution that GM crops could make to delivering food security.

Most creatively, it proposes that we should start thinking about “sustainable intensification” as the overarching policy driver. Most people today see ‘sustainable agriculture’ and ‘intensive agriculture’ (based on ever-increasing applications of fertilisers and pesticides) as polar opposites. But in a world where very little new land is going to be available for food production, yields are going to have to be raised by increasing the efficiency with which inputs are used and by reducing negative environmental impacts. The case studies it provides of sustainable intensification in Africa are truly inspirational.

But the report doesn’t get a clean bill of health. It’s very weak on the need to balance global supply chains with local self-reliance,  embarrassingly naïve about the dangers of concentration in the food industry (with fewer and fewer global operations calling the shots) – and it’s pathetic on meat. Having asserted that “the demand for the most resource-intensive types of food must be contained”, its policy recommendations in this area could have been written by the most irresponsible of the world’s beef barons.

All this is forgivable – and relatively small beer in comparison to the report’s considerable strengths. Unforgivable, by contrast, is its wilful  failure to address population issues. Its authors will claim otherwise, given that the very first of its “Driver Reviews” is about population. But this is made up almost entirely of analysis (historical and current), with very little editorial comment – let alone policy recommendations. On that score, its authors clearly want to be seen as agnostic as to the impact of continuing population growth on food security – which is fairly startling in the year which will see human numbers rise above 7 billion.

Ironically, the report eloquently emphasises the role that women will play in this brave new world of sustainable intensification. In Africa, and much of the developing world, women make up the largest share of the agricultural workforce. And they are far more vulnerable both to policy failure and to the impacts of accelerating climate change. The report’s principal recommendations in that regard are “the eradication of gender-based discrimination (such as land ownership and user rights) and steps to actively promote women’s status”.

Fair enough. But what about a woman’s right to manage her fertility – including the timing, spacing and number of children? What about guaranteed access to a choice of contraception? What about a reliable source of improved reproductive healthcare?

This is harsh criticism. But the report so skilfully joins up the other factors relating to food security, that to perpetuate the deception that there’s no relation between food security and continuing population growth speaks volumes about thedegree to which this remains taboo  territory.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future, and author of Living Within Our Means