Foresight’s report on the future of food and farming covers the ground, but seems to be blind to disruptive change

The recent UK Government Foresight report on the future of the global food and farming system can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition. It takes on the whole of the global food system, and looks out to 2050. Much of what it says is valuable (and the supporting papers look to be a useful research resource), and this is to be expected, given the calibre of the advisers the project was able to draw on. But there are some telling gaps, and these largely come from a lack of decent futures work in the report. Some of these gaps have been pointed up by some of the other work that’s been published recently on food and its wider impacts. This will be a long post, so I’m going to split it into two parts, the first about the Foresight report, the second on its limits.

I was asked to review the Foresight report for meeting organised by the Food Ethics Council (I’ll link to their meeting report when it goes on their website), and this summary is based on that. The starting question for the project (not included in the report) is, “How can a future global population of 9 billion people all be fed healthily and sustainably?“, and the report summarises the characteristics of a well-performing global food market in 2050 as follows:

  • the supply and demand of food balances, and food is affordable
  • food prices are stable
  • there is global access to food (and hunger has been ended)
  • food has lower carbon emissions
  • biodiversity and ecosystem services are maintained.

The challenge, of course, is getting there. And the starting point is not so good. Right now 925 million people suffer from hunger, and much agricultural land is being degraded by poor  farming practices. And it’s worth emphasising that one of the things I liked about the report was the repeated focus on the seriousness of hunger as a continuing problem, perhaps the result of development academics such as Lawrence Haddad being among the expert advisers.

Knowledge transfer could triple Africa’s yields

There are six important drivers of change, the report says, which won’t surprise anyone who’s looked at these issues: Global population increases; increasing intensity of individual demand; climate change; national and international governance of food systems; competition for resources (energy, water, land, energy); and changes in consumer values. And there are some relatively easy wins, it says, including reducing waste, reducing demand for ‘high impact’ foods – basically red meat – and improving governance and knowledge transfer. The last of these could double yields in Russia and triple them in Africa.

From a futures perspective, though, the work has weaknesses. This is a vast complex system, but there is barely a feedback loop to be seen in the report or its supporting papers. My futurist colleague Wendy Schultz, who also presented at the Food Ethics Council meeting, looked at the caveats to the work which modelled future outcomes (opens pdf). It has used some widely employed and well-respected models, but the authors note – in Table C4.2 – the assumptions they have not addressed because they involve uncertainties or are hard to quantify or model. These include climate variability, the impact of pests and parasites, human behaviour and values, technological change, and ‘high-impact, high-uncertainty [so-called] ‘black swan’ events’.

The rise of urban agriculture is a blindspot

In other words, pretty much all of those factors which might have the potential to create disruptive change have been excluded from the modelling. Elsewhere, the report mentions such factors without ever quite getting its teeth into them. It touches on changes in consumer tastes, but doesn’t seem to believe there’s much chance of a significant change in consumption patterns over 40 years (even in the face of the acute resource pressures it has described). And although there’s discussion of agricultural land, it seems to miss – completely – the rather strong trends we see, everywhere, towards urban food production and the blurring of the distinction between agricultural land and other productive space.

So what is to be done? “No single approach can meet all of the complex challenges… decisive action is needed across a wide front”. The report lists 12 priority areas (p34-37, opens pdf), which are not in an order of importance:

  1. Spread best practice.
  2. Invest in new knowledge.
  3. Make sustainable food production central in development.
  4. Work on the assumption that there is little new land for agriculture.
  5. Ensure long-term sustainability of fish stocks.
  6. Promote sustainable intensification.
  7. Include the environment in food system economics.
  8. Reduce waste – both in high- and low-income countries.
  9. Improve the evidence base upon which decisions are made and develop metrics to assess progress.
  10. Anticipate major issues with water availability for food production.
  11. Work to change consumption patterns.
  12. Empower citizens.

Is this enough? Perhaps not. Oddly, governance is a quick win, but not a priority area. The report states boldly right at the beginning that “Nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore”, but nowhere starts to develop the tools which would help people develop a vision of what such a re-design might look like, as if it doesn’t want to say ‘boo’ to power. It seems to take a relatively uncritical view of global and open markets; indeed, whenever the politics of food threatens to break the surface, the report seems to move swiftly on. I’ll come back to this in the next post.

The picture at the top of the post is from the Anne of Carversville blog, and is used with thanks.