Our UK food systems depend on access to diverse global supply chains – and hence on global food security. Around 850 million people worldwide remain chronically hungry due to extreme poverty, and up to 2 billion people lack food security intermittently due to varying degrees of poverty. Impacts are felt most acutely in the developing world with up to 90% of household income of the poorest families spent on food.
The rapid rise in the price of food during 2007/08, which impacted so severely in developing countries, placed greater focus on food security concerns. Whilst the price of the supermarket shopping basket increased in the UK, in developing countries the crisis meant hunger for an additional 110 million people, and permanent health damage for more than 40 million malnourished children.
The price spike has been attributed mainly to short term factors, such as adverse weather events affecting harvests in several regions, the low level of food commodity stocks worldwide and world oil price increases. However, over the long term, issues such as climate change, global population growth, loss of agricultural land to residential and industrial development, and growing consumer demand in countries such as China and India will present an increasing challenge.
The UK Government has set out a vision for a sustainable and secure food system, building on four strategic policy objectives:
- Fair prices, choice, access to food and food security through promotion of open and competitive markets;
- Continuous improvement in food safety;
- Changes needed to deliver healthier diets; and
- A more environmentally sustainable food chain.
Investment in science and technology is integral to all aspects of the vision, and to meeting the challenges on food security identified.
The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington, places high priority on this issue and on the important role for food research and innovation. This includes leading a cross-government group to enhance co-ordination and coherence of food and agricultural research across the public sector, and to encourage a more strategic approach. This group also engages more widely with industry, research and consumer organisations and NGOs via a Food Research Partnership. A key initiative supported by the Partnership has been to develop a UK food research and innovation strategy, which was published in January 2010.
In addition, GO-Science’s Foresight team is undertaking a project looking at the global future of food and farming1 and how a future global population of 9 billion people can be fed healthily and sustainably.