December 29, 2008

New Fundamentals Need To Be Added To Food System

According to a leading food expert, a sustainable global food system in the 21st Century needs to be built on a series of "new fundamentals".

Tim Lang said the current system, designed in the 1940s, has "structural failures," such as "astronomic" and environmental costs.

He also said that the new approach needed to address key fundaments like biodiversity, energy, water and urbanization.

Lang is a member of the United Kingdom government's newly formed Food Council.

"Essentially, what we are dealing with at the moment is a food system that was laid down in the 1940s," he told BBC News.

"It followed on from the dust bowl in the US, the collapse of food production in Europe and starvation in Asia.  At the time, there was clear evidence showing that there was a mismatch between producers and the need of consumers," he said.

Professor Lang also said that during the post-war period, food scientists and policy makers thought that increasing production would reduce the cost of food, while it improved people's diets and public health.

"But by the 1970s, evidence was beginning to emerge that the public health outcomes were not quite as expected," he explained.

"Secondly, there were a whole new set of problems associated with the environment."

Thirty years later, we now face a more complex situation, he added.

"The level of growth in food production per capita is dropping off, even dropping, and we have got huge problems ahead with an explosion in human population."

Lang lists a series of "new fundamentals" that will shape future food products, including oil and energy, water scarcity, biodiversity and urbanization.

He said that in order to feed the projected nine billion people by 2050, policy makers and scientists face a fundamental challenge:  how can food systems work with the planet and biodiversity, rather than raiding and pillaging it?

Hilary Benn, the UK's Environment Secretary, set up a Council of Food Policy Advisers addressing the growing concern of food security and rising prices.

Benn said at the council's launch, "Global food production will need to double just to meet demand."

"We have the knowledge and the technology to do this, as things stand, but the perfect storm of climate change, environmental degradation and water and oil scarcity, threatens our ability to succeed."

Lang, a member of the council, offered this suggestion, "We are going to have to get biodiversity into gardens and fields, and then eat it."

"We have to do this rather than saying that biodiversity is what is on the edge of the field or just outside my garden."

Raymond Blanc, a Michelin-starred chef and long-time food campaigner, agrees with Lang, adding that there is a need for people to reconnect with their food.

Blanc is head of a campaign called Dig for Your Dinner, which he hopes will help reconnect people with their food on how, where and when it is grown.

"Food culture is a whole series of steps," he told BBC News.

"Whatever amount of space you have in your backyard, it is possible to create a fantastic little garden that will allow you to reconnect with the real value of gardening, which is knowing how to grow food."

"And cooking food will introduce you to the basic knowledge of nutrition. So you can see how this can slowly reintroduce food back into our culture."

Blanc warns that prices of food will continue to rise in the future, which will likely prompt more people to start growing their own food.

He also hopes that the food sector will become less.

"We all know that waste is everywhere; it is immoral what is happening in the world of food," said Blanc.

"In Europe, 30% of the food grown did not appear on the shelves of the retailers because it was a funny shape or odd color."

"At least the amendment to European rules means that we can now have some odd-shaped carrots on our shelves. This is fantastic news, but why was it not done before?"

He says that the problem was down to the choosing of food based on sight alone, not smell and touch.

He added "the way that seeds are selected is about immunity to any known disease; they have also got to grow big and fast, and have a fantastic shelf life."

"Never mind taste, texture or nutrition, it is all about how it looks."

"The British consumer today has got to understand that when they make a choice, let's say an apple - either Chinese, French or English one - they are making a political choice, a socioeconomic choice, as well as an environmental one."

"They are making a statement about what sort of society and farming they are supporting."

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that another 40 million people have been pushed into hunger in 2008 due to higher food prices.

This brings the world to 963 million undernourished people, compared to 923 million in 2007.

The FAO also says that ongoing financial crisis could tip even more people into hunger and poverty.

"World food prices have dropped since early 2008, but lower prices have not ended the food crisis in many poor countries," said FAO assistant director-general Hafez Ghanem at the launch of the agency's State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008 report.

"The structural problems of hunger, like the lack of access to land, credit and employment, combined with high food prices remain a dire reality," he added.

Professor Lang outlined the challenges facing the global food supply system by saying, "The 21st Century is going to have to produce a new diet for people, more sustainably, and in a way that feeds more people more equitably using less land."


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