The Guardian Sustainable Business hosted a live online panel entitled Food and Agriculture: What Are The Sustainability Challenges?, which brought together eight experts to discuss the challenges and opportunities of feeding 9 billion people by 2050.
The panel featured Jason Clay, Senior Vice President of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who opened the discussion by drawing attention to the issue of net food availability—having sufficient food without overproduction—so “there is enough for all, and not too much for the planet.”
The panel was asked, “who is more important in driving change: businesses, farmers, or consumers?”
Charles Tassell, a UK-based farmer and founder of AgriChatUK, and Oscar Rodriguez of Architecture and Food, agreed that consumers are the most important drivers of change. But, Rodriguez reminded that while consumers may wield the most power to drive change, businesses have “worked hard to drive their choices and wrestle that power from them.”
Demand drives change, agreed the panelists, with Clay believing the quickest enablers of demand change are not the public, but companies. “Consumers are far slower,” argued Clay.
Rodriguez noted, “farmers are the least empowered at the moment” to drive change. But according to Clay, they “can and do drive innovation.” Chris Brown, general manager for Environmental Sustainability at agribusiness, Olam International, mentioned that farmers do play a key role, particularly in maintaining the change that is brought about by businesses and consumers.
When asked what legislation is needed to drive increased sustainability in agriculture, Chris Hunt, director of GRACE’s food program, Sustainable Table, responded with a list of policy improvements relevant to the United States including shifting subsidies toward production of fruits and vegetables, improving the regulation of industrial livestock, and encouraging food waste reduction, were among his recommendations.
More innovation is needed at the producer level, acknowledged Clay, but in most cases “subsidies are used to support what is, not what needs to be.” “Subsidies kill innovation. We are shooting ourselves in the foot,” Clay affirmed.
There were mixed responses by the panel about whether agricultural production needs to increase in the future. Louise Manning, of the Royal Agricultural University, believes that the question should not be about production, but distribution: “The biggest challenge is not how many calories we produce on the planet currently, but how we distribute them to those who consume.”
Richard Waite of the World Resources Institute agreed, but argued that increasing food production is necessary because 70 percent more food will be required in 2050 than today. This is “a pretty big food gap,” stated Waite.
The discussion finished with the panelists sharing their perspective on the biggest challenge, and opportunity, facing agriculture. Soil was the central concern for Liz Bowles of the Soil Association: “We need to be much more knowledgeable about how our soils really work. This alone would help our soils to be more resilient to climate change and would reduce the costs of producing our food.”
Waite acknowledged the overall challenge is a tall order: “We can’t just use more fertilizers and irrigate more land like we did before.” He stressed that there is a menu of solutions to feed the future population to be considered.
The biggest challenge Hunt sees is the “shift away from a large-scale, resource-intensive, consolidated, industrial model of food production and distribution, to a more prudent, smaller-scale system.” But Hunt sees hope for the future in the actions of consumers, who are “demanding change in the food system.”
And according to Clay, “there is not silver bullet here—one strategy by itself will not be enough.”