The grand challenges for (fair?) food security

Unimelb food policy PhD student Jenn Lacy-Nichols gives us the low down on The ‘Grand Challenges’ for Agriculture and Future Food and Nutritional Securitya public lecture by Professor Tim Reeves hosted at the university in late March. 

Australian rural footy teams might provide an insight into one of the great tragedies of the modern food system, according to Professor Tim Reeve. Once upon a time, he notes, vibrant rural communities had “separate teams with separate identities that hated each other.” As small farms are squeezed out of the food system, these farming communities are eroded. Now former footy rivals are all on the same team.

In his presentation on the five “grand challenges,” Professor Reeves identifies a number of important issues for agriculture and the future of food security and argues that we need to tackle “nexus” issues more effectively, and to not treat agriculture, food, environment, nutrition and human health as separate policy silos. To borrow a phrase from food policy scholars, we need “joined up” food policy that considers the intersections and synergies between different grand challenges and offers a coherent and unified path forward.

His first three challenges are environmental: the loss and degradation of our natural resources; climate change; and nitrogen use (in)efficiency. A key solution he proposes is sustainable intensification—growing more food with less land and resources. 

He also touches on the idea that vegetarian diets tend to have a far lower environmental footprint than diets with high meat consumption, although he does not propose policy options that might promote vegetarianism (or the less ideologically contentious flexitarianism). 

His last two challenges move beyond the environment and touch on issues that are close to the heart of the Fair Food Challenge: food waste and the impact of agricultural production and consumption practices on other stakeholders in the system. 

He notes that if food waste were dramatically reduced, it would “close the gap” and world food production would not need to be doubled. While this still rests on the (much debated) assertion that achieving global food security requires an enormous increase in food production, minimizing food waste is an important issue that has not received adequate political or policy attention. 

The contradiction between cheap food policies and farmer livelihoods raises important issues around the sociocultural impacts of current food system dynamics. According to Professor Reeve, 

“If you drive the price of food down you won’t have any farmers that want to grow it because they won’t make a profit.”

The decline of rural farming communities is but one of the many social and economic externalities of the food system that favours the “get big or get out” approach. Ensuring that those that work in the food system are treated equitably and justly is critical to a fair food system.

I would add that approaches to food security must also consider the ethical dimension of the right to food: the right for people to feed themselves with dignity.