Food’s ticking time bomb

The UN says we have enough food to ensure everyone has an adequate diet, and yet an estimated 795 million people are going hungry.
The UN says we have enough food to ensure everyone has an adequate diet, and yet an estimated 795 million people are going hungry.
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Dr Tara Garnett is a food sustainability expert. Ahead of her appearance today at the York Festival of Ideas, she talks to Chris Bond about the challenges we face in the future.

MOST of us in this country take our food for granted.

We have an abundance of supermarkets on our doorstep, many of which are open around the clock for our convenience, offering an array of exotic ingredients scarcely imaginable just 20 years ago.

But it’s not the same story everywhere you go. When it comes to food the world seems to be divided into two distinct camps - the have nots and those who have too much.

According to UN data we produce enough food for everyone to have an adequate diet and yet on the one hand there are around 2 billion people either overweight or obese, while another 795 million go hungry.

These numbers are likely to increase with experts predicting that the global population may reach 11 billion by the end of this century.

This will mean even more mouths to feed and place growing pressure on global food production and sustainability.

These are issues close to the heart of Dr Tara Garnett who set up and runs the Food Climate Research Network, based at Oxford University. She is among the keynote speakers at this year’s York Festival of Ideas when she will be talking about the challenges we face in producing enough food for people and the need to radically change our attitudes towards food and the type of things we eat.

This, she says, is essential otherwise we run the risk of undermining our ability to produce food for our children and grandchildren in years to come.

“We need to look at the entire food system, from food production, how we grow food and the environmental costs involved, to how it’s distributed and what ends up on people’s plates, because these issues are going to become more problematic in the coming decades,” says Dr Garnett.

She points to the growing number of people who are overweight or obese as a clear sign that the food system isn’t working. “In the UK, almost two thirds of adults are either overweight or obese and in countries like China it’s between 25 and 30 per cent.

“In China around 13 per cent of kids are also overweight or obese, which is nearly double that for the UK, and this is going to create huge problems because it increases the risk of diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.”

At the same time, though, there’s the huge number of people, mainly in Africa and Asia, who don’t have enough to eat. “There’s also the question of hidden hunger among people who get enough food in calorie terms but don’t have enough of the essential nutrients we need, so they develop iron deficiencies, vitamin A deficiencies and calcium deficiencies.

“We also have the linked problems of not enough food, too much food, and the wrong kinds of food.” It all adds up to a confusing and contradictory picture. “We’re well fed, under fed or badly fed,” says Dr Garnett.

What is particularly shocking is the level of food waste in some countries. In the United States it’s estimated that a staggering 40 per cent of all the food produced is never eaten, while in Europe we throw away 100 million tonnes of food every year. “Some of this is lost because of pests or going mouldy while it’s being stored and in the UK we also have a problem with supermarket waste.”

But it’s also down to our lifestyle. “We buy lots of food and then don’t fancy it, or we go out to restaurants and it goes off before we get round to eating it. We have to change people’s eating habits because we all have fridges and freezers in this country so there’s no need to waste food in the way we do.”

Dr Garnett points out that it’s not just a waste of food but money, too. “Over 22 per cent of all food that we buy is thrown away which means all the resources that went into producing it, the energy and the labour and the cost of transporting it, is all wasted.”

Another vexed question is the price of food. Farmers and producers have long been at loggerheads with supermarkets over this particularly concerning essentials like milk and bread being sold too cheaply.

Dr Garnett says if we don’t acknowledge the problem it will only get worse and believes we have become too accustomed to having low cost food in this country. “We don’t value our food, it’s become too cheap and we may need to pay more in the future. But at the same time make sure that people aren’t priced out - nutritious, safe and sustainable food has to be affordable to everyone.”

Climate change is another concern. “In the UK, half of greenhouse emissions from food are caused by agricultural production.

“It’s hard to imagine the Yorkshire Dales without all the lovely sheep but at the same time they cause lots of methane and nitrous oxide that create greenhouse gases. A lot of people probably don’t realise, but livestock production actually contributes around 14.5 per cent of climate change emissions.”

In the bid to produce more food – and particularly meat and dairy products - vast tracts of land were cleared to make way for arable crops which have also increased CO2 levels.

But Dr Garnett says there are potential solutions. Policy makers, the food industry and farmers need to look at ways of producing food differently. “We need to look at ways of producing food on existing land rather than clearing uncultivated land and we have to adapt to climate change around the world.”

She believes, too, that our food consumption habits have to change. “There has been a big growth in livestock production and meat consumption, now I’m not saying we need to go vegan but we do have to look at reducing our intakes of meat and in some cases dairy products too.”

The price of meat needs to reflect the work and effort and environmental costs that go into producing it. “We need to make sure that poorer people can still afford it but we need to start looking at meat as something we have on special occasions rather than it being the default at meals, which is what it is at the moment.”

Dr Garnett says the food industry has a pivotal role to play. “It doesn’t just give customers what they want it can help create demand. People want healthier food and they also want affordable food which points towards eating more plant-based and less meat based food.”

The government also needs to take the lead on this, she feels. “The government needs to govern a lot more and the food industry needs to stop selling us rubbish. We want food that’s better for us and better for the environment.

“It’s not all lovely and rosy and there aren’t always win-wins – but there is huge scope for aligning our health and environmental goals. If we have the will then change is possible.”

* The Future of Food: The ticking time bomb, debate at the Ron Cooke Hub, University of York, Today 3pm. Admission is free, for more details go to yorkfestivalofideas.com.