July 9, 2012, by Simon Butt

No silver bullet for food security

Dr John Strak, Honorary Professor in Food Economics at The University of Nottingham, on how good communication contributes to food security.

Recently I had three days in London listening to an array of speakers from far and wide about the future of farming and where the best investment prospects are in the world for agriculture. Three days might seem a lot (it is when the rest of your week’s work remains undone!) but these subjects eat up time, PowerPoint presentations, and informed debate and argument.

I learnt a lot and met a lot of business leaders and technical experts (an interesting mix) who had much to say. And almost all of what I learnt was relevant to global food security. The subjects covered in those three days included: soils, water, productivity, yields, consumption and population growth, innovation, and much more. And I confirmed a view that I had formed early on in my food security research – and exemplified by many of the contributions to this website – namely, that there is no silver bullet when it comes to working out the solution(s) to global food security. No single discipline or expert has the answer.

OK – so where does that take us? It seems to me that it takes us to an important conclusion about how global food security questions will be successfully addressed.

If it isn’t one branch of expertise or a single research discipline that can be relied upon to deliver progress then, obviously, we need a multi-disciplinary approach. Less obviously, this requires another type of expertise – communication skills. The latter are necessary if we are to move forward at the speed we need to muster.

Different experts cannot, per se, be expected to organize and communicate key ideas across research (and cultural) boundaries. We hear or see it every day in the news media when representatives of, for example, sport, politics or finance struggle to communicate their narrow fields of knowledge. Similar barriers occur within science disciplines, and between science and the social sciences, and between the Americas, Asia and Europe.  Yet global food security solutions need the mix of people I saw at the London conference last week if this communication challenge is to be addressed.

In a small way The University of Nottingham is doing its bit to take on this issue through its upcoming meeting in Shanghai on November 5 and 6. We have a programme that covers, we hope, all the key issues with speakers and participants drawn from across the globe. In one (very full) day we expect to identify road blocks and solutions, and to be able to articulate a consensus view from an audience that will contain many senior executives from the global food industry and the world’s research community.

There will be no silver bullets fired but I expect that we will generate the right sort of ammunition that can hit the food security target.

Posted in Farmingfood security