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Food system resilience

John Ingram of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford discusses the different strategies for addressing food system resilience and the new opportunities that these will create in the food sector.

Introduction

One of the great human achievements over the last half-century is that advances in global food production have largely kept pace with global demand. Today, around 6 billion people are not hungry, up from about 2 billion 50 years ago. Nevertheless, there are still about 1 billion hungry people and at least 2 billion more lacking sufficient nutrients. Paradoxically, there are also more than 2.5 billion people who are overweight or obese. Different, overlapping forms of malnutrition are now the ‘new normal’[1].

With population growth and increasing wealth in a strongly-emerging middleclass apparent in many nations, food demand will continue to rise in coming decades. If diets for the increasingly-wealthy continue to move towards more processed foods, often higher in ‘empty calories’, there will be significant negative impacts on diet-related disease. We also know that current food system activities will continue to have a significant negative impact on the natural resource base. Without radical changes to the methods of production, satisfying this increasing demand will lead to massive environmental degradation, further undermining the natural resource base upon which our food security depends[2]. The poor and marginalised will be affected first and most strongly.

Much of the change in food demand is linked to urbanisation, with consumers having more-ready access to a wider range of ‘empty calories’[3]. The change in consumers’ options and preferences, and thereby consumption patterns, drives food systems changes. The challenge ahead is to achieve food security for a growing, wealthier, urbanising population, while minimising further environmental degradation. This needs to be achieved against a background of climate change and natural resource depletion, concurrent with changes in socioeconomic-cultural conditions. Some of these changes are gradual (e.g. global mean temperature increase, demography, sea level rise), and can be thought of as increasing stresses. Others are sudden (e.g. extreme weather events, financial market crashes, disease outbreaks, conflict), and can be thought of as shocks. This then leads to the question of how do we increase the resilience of our food systems to these stresses and shocks?

This question has come into sharp focus in recent years, driven by increasing recognition of the many and varied negative environmental and health trends in food system outcomes, and the nature and potential magnitude of stresses and shocks. There is however also a recognition of the need to maintain vibrant, competitive agri-food enterprises (and their associated livelihoods), which underpin our food systems.

Without radical changes to the methods of production, satisfying this increasing demand will lead to massive environmental degradation.’

Above: Disruption to rail transportation
Below: Food bank distribution

Different notions of resilience

What then do we want from food systems? Food security is of course a primary goal, and a widely-accepted definition is ‘when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’[4]. We can therefore think of food system resilience in general terms as the system’s capacity to maintain this desired state of food security when exposed to stresses and shocks. There are also a number of additional outcomes that both actors within the food system – as well as the policy and decision makers, NGOs and others trying to influence it – would like to see resilient. Examples are the food system’s environmental performance or its economic and/or social outcomes. The idea that resilience is the capacity to maintain desired states then leads to a number of different notions of resilience. Three are commonly considered:

First, robustness: the ability to resist disruption to desired outcome. Food system examples include developing more heat-tolerant crops, strategic grain reserves and stronger food distribution infrastructure (e.g. harbours, railways). This requires considerable political and financial investment.

Second, recovery: the ability to return to desired outcome following disruption. Food system examples include insurance to re-instate crops or physical infrastructure and emergency food distribution systems. This requires contingency planning and funding.

Third, re-organisation: the ability to make changes in the system so as to maintain desired outcomes. This is commonly termed ‘adaptation’ and food system examples include changing farming systems, diversifying sources of primary ingredients, diversifying food chain operations and better buffered market infrastructure. This requires lateral thinking.

There is, however, a fourth way to think of resilience of food security outcomes – re-orientation: the ability to accept alternative outcomes. But understanding this depends on considering carefully the food security definition quoted above. Key words are ‘sufficient’ and ‘preference’. Sufficient means enough for a given purpose, i.e. the right amount. Changing consumption patterns to reduce the physiologically-unnecessary (and unhealthy) over-consumption would increase food system resilience due to the system not having to produce so much food in the face of perturbations. Changing preferences, i.e. accepting a different diet composition, would also increase food system resilience due to accepting a diet less dependent on either foods more susceptible to disruption, or which have high-environmental impact, thereby reducing the risk of undermining the long-term ability of the natural resource base to produce food.

Elements of ‘robustness’, ‘recovery’ and ‘re-organisation’ will all be important components of increasing food system resilience. However, an extrapolation of recent and current consumption patterns over coming decades due to increases in both population and wealth, together with the potential stresses and shocks, indicates that a radical shift in consumption patterns of the ‘over-consumers’ is needed[5].

So, while there is a clear need to develop more productive food producing systems that are more environmentally benign, a major advance also needs to be made in the demand side of the equation. ‘Re-orientation’ can also be termed ‘transformation’, and ultimately could prove to be the most important as it is the one that most significantly combines the notions of sustainability and robustness. Food system examples include consumer education/ awareness programmes, taxes on more environmental- and health-impactful processes and products, and subsidies for more sustainable food system activities. Thus we need to think of ways not only of how to better understand food system reactions to stresses and shocks, but also how to actively facilitate transformations and manage food system resilience with multiple goals in mind.

All four ways to consider resilience not only challenge the food sector but also offer tremendous opportunities: new methods for primary production; primary and secondary processing, marketing and retail; new, more environmentally-benign formulations aimed at emerging markets; and new professionals coming into the sector equipped with food systems ‘thinking’ to help maintain vibrant enterprises. Identifying and seizing these opportunities will be increasingly important as the nature of stresses and shocks become ever clearer.

Global Food Security’, the UK cross-government programme on food security research, launched a £14.5m set of projects under the banner ‘Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context.’

Crop damage from extreme weather

Cross-government programme

It is against this background that ‘Global Food Security’, the UK cross-government programme on food security research, launched a £14.5m set of projects under the banner ‘Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context’.

With funding from BBSRC, ESRC, NERC and the Scottish Government, it aims to help policymakers and practitioners optimise the resilience of the UK’s food system to environmental, biological, economic, social and geopolitical stresses and shocks.

The three research themes are:

1. Optimise the productivity, resilience and sustainability of agricultural systems and landscape.

2. Optimise the resilience of food supply chains.

3. Influence food choice for health, sustainability and resilience at the individual and household level.

Ten projects have been funded with research phase lifetimes up to 2020. While most are orientated towards Theme 1, some span a fuller ‘supply chain’ agenda. Ongoing integration of the individual projects’ results, in the context of changing information needs of a range of other stakeholders, will allow a much stronger understanding of how to enhance the resilience of the UK food system to guide policy and practice.

John Ingram, Food Systems Programme Leader, Environmental Change Institute,

University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK

Email: john.ingram@eci.ox.ac.uk Web: http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/

References

1. IFPRI, 2016: Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact: Ending Malnutrition by 2030. 180 p. Washington DC.

2. Westhoek, H., J. Ingram, S. van Berkum and M. Hajer, 2016: Food systems and natural resources. UNEP.

3. Tilman, D. and M. Clark, 2014: Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515, 518-522.

4. World Food Summit, 1996. FAO, Rome.

5. Ingram JSI. Look beyond production. 2017. Nature 544 S27.



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