Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds, speaks in June 2012 at the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by: CCAFS / CC BY-ND-SA

Global demand for food is growing, more consumers want high-input foods like meat, and global average temperatures are climbing.

Obesity and diabetes plague the Western world, where caloric intake often trumps nutrition; at the same time, undernutrition threatens development goals in many parts of the global south.

The nutrition problem is a global one, and the solution, according to Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds and an official “champion” for the U.K.’s Global Food Security program, can’t just be producing more food. We must consider how to connect the dots between economic growth, public health and environmental impacts.

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation with Benton:

When it comes to increasing food production for a growing global population, are there any low-hanging-fruit options you see that we should pursue right away?

All of the low-hanging fruits are being plucked … If it’s easy to do, then people will be doing it. The issues that we are increasingly facing are the politically difficult, socially difficult, culturally difficult things that we have to do if we are going to get anywhere close to meeting the … projected demand growth over the next few decades in the face of climate change and increasing competition for land and water. … Those issues together are just so complicated to deal with for a whole host of reasons. The very easy things are being done. It’s the difficult things that are left. … My job is about looking strategically into the future.

As U.K. champion for global food security, you play a large role in ensuring that policy is informed by research and that those worlds are speaking to each other and aligning priorities. Are there any areas within food security where the research and policy communities are completely at odds? Are there areas where the science says one thing, but the political reality forces something completely different?

Looking ahead into the future, it is increasingly difficult to imagine that meeting demand growth in the way that it is currently projected to rise globally will be possible in a world where there is sustainable agriculture. For me, part of the future is not just about how we grow more in a sustainable way, but it’s also how we manage demand to allow the agricultural production to be sustainable, and there are a lot of reasons for thinking about the food system as both something that generates … economic growth but it also impacts on the environment and it impacts on human health, and there are a lot of reasons for thinking about all of those together, whereas in the past policy has tended to think about those one by one.

So we have a global food system in the Westernized example that creates quite a large amount of environmental impacts in negative ways and public health impacts in negative ways with obesity and diabetes and all of that. The future of the demand-side management for governments to ensure that people eat wisely, don’t make themselves sick, eat … in a way that doesn’t demand high impact on the environment, in a sense that’s got to be the future. But politically, that is a very difficult thing for people to get to grips with.

The policy dialogue around sustainable nutrition is very much growing and you can start to see the policy dialogue actually happening. But I think we’re a very long way from trying to finding real routes to intervene as opposed to quiet messages to nudge people in the direction of eating healthily and sustainably for a globally equitable food system.

What do you mean by ‘sustainable nutrition’?

If you think about food for optimal nutrition, the sort of diet that one should have, then however you produce that diet, there will be environmental impacts. So aligning … economic health, environmental health and public health gives you this kind of notion of sustainable nutrition. You could, for example, have public health guidelines that say …: ”You should eat two portions of oily fish per week.” If you scale that up to a global population, then that’s demand for 700 billion oily fish per year, and globally you can’t sustain that …

So how do the environmental boundaries of food production and nutrition, how do those align? What is it possible to produce on a global basis, and how can that be apportioned into peoples’ diets to give them optimal health?

It sounds like in order for those considerations to arise, you need the people who can tell you what the nutrition guidelines should be to be speaking with the people who can tell you what the environmental impacts would be. As you said those are typically different communities. Are you seeing examples of that working well?

I must have been to six or seven major meetings this year where we have started to get agriculturalists in rooms together with nutritionists and “sustainability-ists” to kind of look and see where there is common ground between them, or where there is disputed ground, or a lack of evidence … I’ve been in two meeting under the G-20 umbrella in the last six weeks, and both of those have at least made nods in the direction of wanting to join up economic aspects of agriculture to environmental and human health dimensions and see it all as a system.

Ultimately, one of the issues that some of the most recent science literature is starting to push is that if demand growth continues in the way that we have been recently thinking about it, there is no way that we can do that within a sustainability envelope.

There’s a paper that’s just been accepted in a major journal that I refereed which effectively says if demand for meat continues as it has been, then by 2050, the carbon emissions from the livestock sector alone will be equivalent to the entire global greenhouse gas budget that everyone’s agreed to to limit the world’s warming to 2 degrees. In effect, meat production by mid-century, if demand carries on in the way it is, will account for two degree warming on its own. When you start looking at the future of climate change, it is quite frightening from an agricultural perspective.

What role can better data play in helping to inform consumers or guide the way food gets distributed? What are the most interesting data applications you’ve seen  or areas where there are the biggest remaining data gaps?

There is a lot of discussion about how we close yield gaps around the world, especially in the developing world. If you look at sub-Saharan Africa, there are many places where the production potential looks like it is much greater than what is currently being produced. That sort of thinking always then leads to [people saying]: “If we just close that yield gap, we will produce more calories.”

My own feeling is that, especially as the world becomes more variable with climate change, the way we will close the yield gap in any given place is quite dependent on some of the issues in that place — the climate in that place, the soil in that place, the topographies and the kind of infrastructural issues, the cultural issues…

The history of big agriculture is very much that we try and develop a toolbox that we can apply very, very widely, whereas actually I think what we need to do is forget that idea and say each place is different. We need to manage each place differently. We might need different genetics in each place. … We need to be environmentally sensitive in each place.

How do we do that? That’s where some access to big data from an environmental perspective becomes very useful — being able to predict how best to manage something. You can’t get an extension worker going out to every single farm, but it should be possible to produce decision support tools that will help people in their particular location about what is best practice.

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Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.