December 12, 2012, by Fraser

The great food debate

Dr John Strak, Honorary Professor in Food Economics at The University of Nottingham, on his recent encounter with the Women’s Institute as it launches its report on global food security.

Food for thought

A day out in York in cold, snowy December probably isn’t that appealing but I was tempted when I heard that the Women’s Institute was launching its report Food for thought: global and national challenges of food security.

This was part of its Great Food Debate  – a debate which it wants to see gathering steam next year. I wasn’t the only one prepared to endure the weather as the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Patterson, was in York too and he shared the platform with an alumnus of the University, Peter Kendall, the President of the National Farmers’ Union. Whatever the WI’s report might say these policy-makers and opinion-formers knew that the +200,000 members of the WI would be very engaged in the debate on food security in the near future.  I had high hopes of learning something from this event so the trek seemed worthwhile.

And did I learn anything from this venture north? 

Well, I didn’t get answers to a lot of questions but I did get confirmation that the Global Food Security research group at the University is asking the right questions – and that there are a lot of them. Again and again the speakers, the WI’s report, and the audience came back to the same (long) list of challenges and queries in the food security agenda and, generally, they put the emphasis on science and rational debate to answer those inquiries.  This was one learning point – that the University is right to have a multi-disciplinary evidence-based approach to global food security research and that we have identified many of the challenges that will determine the correct outcome to the research efforts in this area. Even if the destination is not clear it’s good to know that we are travelling in the right direction.

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the Secretary of State approached the problems in a reasoned and rational way as he is the brother in law of Matt Ridley the author of The Rational Optimist. But it was pleasing, nevertheless, to hear a key politician underlining the need to have science-based answers to food security questions. This was another learning point and one that I was pleased to identify in the attitude of a key policy-maker as I reflected on the evening’s discussions on my return south.

The time is now

The NFU President, Peter Kendall, made an important observation as well – that the Foresight Report on food security  may have made a mistake in talking about what we needed to do by 2050. In Kendall’s view we need to be talking about what we need to do by 2025 – or a lot of people will be going hungry, and the planet will be warming uncontrollably, long before 2050 appears in the smartphone calendar or the PC’s desktop diary. I hope that I am not overly influenced by Mr Kendall’s links with Nottingham University (he is one of our graduates) but I think this is a crucial point. There is no time to waste and we should not let the policy-makers think that the answers to food security challenges can wait until after the next election – or, worse, after the next but one.

The WI’s great food debate could not come at a better time and it’s a debate that the University’s research priority group can play a part in – indeed, our recent Shanghai food security forum is a launching pad for entry into the “great food debate”. I would expect that, as part of that debate, the University’s research into global food security can offer some solutions to the long list of challenges that the WI’s meeting identified.

Posted in food security