We need radical change in how we produce and consume food
We need radical change in how we produce and consume food
Peter Horton 0
0 Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures and Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, University of Sheffield , Sheffield S10 2TN , UK
1 Peter Horton
Agri-food system; Sustainability; Policy
Recently, two papers were published that, in different ways,
illustrate the huge challenges we face in delivering global food
security. In the first, it was shown how nearly half of the
greenhouse gas emissions from producing a loaf of bread arise
from the nitrogen fertiliser used to drive wheat cultivation
(Goucher et al. 2017)
. With over 100 million tonnes of such
fertiliser used annually to support global food production, and
the other impacts that arise such as pollution of water courses,
the unsustainability of modern agriculture is exposed. In a
second paper, the interconnectedness of the agri-food system
was elaborated and a compelling case presented for joined-up
thinking when devising future policy. This should be one that
analyses together environment, land-use, food production,
food consumption and human health. Futhermore, it should
be one that fully considers the development and expression of
agri-technology in the context of the complex cultural,
political, ethical and economic tensions that arise (Horton et al.
2017). These two papers lead to the conclusion that only a
radical change in the way we produce and consume food will
deliver a sustainable and just global agri-food system. In this
article the nature and causes of the problem are identified, and
possible solutions defined.
2 Agri-food system failures
The Green Revolution of the post-World War II era has rightly
been hailed as a huge achievement for humankind.
Transformation in plant breeding coupled with development
of an array of fertilisers and other agrochemicals and
mechanisation of agronomic practice brought about massive
increases in the yields of the major cereal crops, saving
millions of lives. It led to an industrialisation of agriculture which
has enabled the development of a complex global food
business that delivers a wide choice of safe, nutritious
and affordable food to billions of people. However, this
industrialisation of food production has had significant
and increasingly worrying negative environmental and
Most importantly, this industrial agri-food system model
requires ever-increasing levels of production at the lowest
possible economic cost. It is energy intensive, emitting one
third of all greenhouse gases
(Tubiello et al. 2015)
– it is no
exaggeration to state that industrial agriculture turns oil into
food (Walker 2009). In doing so, it has other serious
environmental impacts: destruction of forests and grasslands for new
agricultural land, a major cause of biodiversity loss
et al. 2017)
; depletion of non-renewable resources such as
ancient ground water
(Dalin et al. 2017)
; pollution of land,
water courses and oceans by agrochemicals and animal waste
(Zhang et al. 2015)
; and degradation of the soil upon which it
totally depends (Montgomery 2007). Fundamentally,
intensive agriculture has neglected and even disrupted the biology
and natural capital on which the food production system had
been historically based. It has also been argued that, because
increasingly efficient cereal production was at the expense of
crop diversity, it has contributed to high levels of
malnutrition, as well as giving rise to negative social and economic
. Moreover, gross inequality in access
to food across the globe has persisted, with nearly one billion
people underfed in developing countries
ironically, also at the same time, excessive consumption in
the developed world
(Ng et al. 2014)
. In conclusion, the
current agri-food system is not fit for purpose – it is a flawed
way to provide food in both developed and developing
The direction of governments’ policies to agriculture,
agricultural subsidies and agricultural research perpetuate this
industrial model, absorbing environmental concerns into the
idea of sustainable intensification
(Garnett et al. 2013)
creating the illusion that to solve Bfood security^ there just
needs to be more of the same, but done sustainably. Massive
20, 50 or 100% increases in crop yield are advocated, figures
routinely quoted to justify plant science research or denote
impact of research publications. Whilst improvements in yield
undoubtedly will benefit global food production, this will be
only a part of the answer (Foley et al. 2011). Moreover,
sustainable intensification capable of delivering yield increases
on this scale remains an unproven hypothesis, not yet a
blueprint for global food production. The model also gives rise to
an assumption that solutions to global health and international
development issues are similarly dependent on such
technology-led yield increases. Antagonism to this agri-food
model leads many to look to the past for solutions, but often
do so through Brose-tinted glasses^. We cannot produce
enough food by going back to pre-industrial processes, and
we should not discount the potential of modern technological
advances. Organic agriculture in its strictest interpretation will
never feed our growing population adequately or indeed
. A radical rethink of the whole
agri-food system is needed, from production and
consumption, to policy and legislation. We need to be brave, but to
ensure global food security for the next generation, this is a
challenge we must face now. In order to do this, we must first
define the root causes of the problems, then evaluate the
possible solutions before finally considering how to enact them in
political and social terms.
3 The causes
Food provision is driven by a market economic model that
depends upon continuous maximisation of growth in
consumption (and hence production). Being dependent upon
intensive fertilisation from fossil-fuel driven nitrogen
fixation it is intrinsically unsustainable because it breaks the
natural biological nitrogen cycle. Resource cycles of
carbon and phosphorus are also incomplete, and ultimately
limits to net primary productivity imposed by the laws of
chemistry and physics are reached
The agri-food system is dominated by a small number of
large global businesses who relentlessly pursue growth
and monopoly, whilst absorbing and hijacking trends
towards sustainable and healthy food, and who exert
pressure on producers to supply food at low cost, to use
agrochemicals and so re-inforce the industrial model.
High supply chain throughput of production and
consumption inevitably leads to waste, particularly by the
retailer and the consumer, whilst reducing the
resilience necessary to cope with global shocks and
gross disruption caused by the effects of climate
change and plant pests and diseases.
& In the developed world, food is regarded as a consumer
item rather than a basic human need, underpinning
excessive levels of consumption. Food is advertised and
marketed as such, becoming the focus of TV shows, social
media and newspaper columns. Food is available 24/7 in
supermarkets, takeaways and restaurants. A consequent
emphasis on visual appearance of food leads to waste
and excessive, unnecssary (and mostly plastic) packaging.
& Food retailing exploits the inherent human physiological
desires to consume high calorie food leading to
consumption of unhealthy foods, whilst food manufacturers
consistently resist attempts to introduce regulations to curb such
& The inclusion of foodstuffs in global commodity markets
leads to many perverse outcomes such as unforeseen land
(Lim et al. 2017)
and excessive supply (and
low price) of often unnecessary and unhealthy food
products and additives.
& The omnivorous human diet drives the eating of meat,
which is amplified by a host of cultural and social drivers,
and exploited by aggressive marketing by the agri-food
industry. Meat production is resource inefficient, demands
large land areas and adds significantly to greenhouse gas
emissions, whilst its consumption contributes to global
epidemics of non-communicable disease.
& In order to maximise yield (and profit) agriculture focusses
upon a relatively small number of genotypes of a small
number of crops. In doing so, potentially more resilient
and highly nutritious crops are discarded or ignored.
& Globalisation, which in theory provides for poverty relief
through trade, in practice often diverts local agriculture and
land use towards food exports to developed countries. The
environmental impacts of the food consumed in developed
countries are hence exported to developing countries.
& None of the external environmental, social and
health penalties of the agri-food system are costed,
and there is no mechanism by which responsibility
for them is allocated and/or shared between different
parts of supply chains.
& Despite the industrialisation of agriculture and its
dependence on technology, there has been a failure to embrace
those new technologies such as genetically modified crops
or new ideas about soil conservation, which could increase
the sustainability of food production.
& Well intentioned government policies, such as farm
subsidies or food industry incentives, which aim to
address environmental and health issues often fail
because of reluctance to alienate various sectors of the
& Research and policy on agri-food is compartmentalised,
failing to recognise the inextricable link between
environmental health and human health (Tilman and
4 The solutions
An assertive new vision for agriculture, food business and
health needs to be forged. It should entail as its first principles
A commitment by governments of all countries to
implement agri-food policies that will help deliver the United
Nations Sustainable Development Goal, BZero Hunger^.
Recognition by governments that environment,
agriculture, food and public health are an integrated system, that
has to be considered as a whole.
Social aspects of the agri-food system, such as equality of
access, culture, ethics and justice should not be secondary
to free market economics and technology.
Consumer action and government policy have to work
together to bring about change, curtailing and
redirecting the motivations of the agri-food
businesses and their shareholders.
There should be a concordat on agri-food policy with all
stakeholders involved and with legally binding obligations.
Procedures should be developed that combine and integrate
scientific evidence obtained by methods such as Life Cycle
Assessment with sociological indicators in a new approach to
evidence-based agri-food policy making
(Horton et al. 2017)
Such a concordat could recommend a number of interventions
and innovations such as the following 10-point plan:
1. A pledge to make sure all people are aware that a diet, in
terms of the type and amount of food consumed, that is
good for health is also of critical importance for
preserving our environment, conserving biodiversity and
combatting global warming. This campaign, harnessing
everything from social media to food labelling, has to hit
home the unsustainability of the current agri-food
system, but should also build on current successes (e.g.
public awareness of food waste and the dangers of
pesticides), and be both positive and optimistic, offering
information to enable sustainable food choices.
2. High profile, well-resourced and sustained national and
international debate about the production and
consumption of meat and other foods derived from livestock
should be initiated to find imaginative policies that will
deliver reduced production without excessive price
increases to the consumer and without damaging farming
businesses. Simultaneously, research into increasing the
sustainability of production should continue, such as
reducing ruminant methane production.
3. Incentives in agriculture should encourage the
environmental and health linkage and promote sustainable
practices, such as reducing fertiliser use and
increasing soil health
4. Legislative powers need to be used when necessary to
mandate by law adherence of agri-businesses to
indicators of sustainable practice, including reduction of all the
environmental impacts of food production, promotion of
human health and elimination of operations which lead
to food waste.
5. Policies need to be developed that accommodate the
probable increase in food prices that will result from
such sustainable practices.
6. Trade agreements and national agri-food actions,
including research and development, should be designed to
deliver a global agri-food system that is just for all
people in all countries.
7. Research into exploitation of the huge diversity of
foodproducing plants is needed with a view to improving
production resilience and human nutrition, together with
research and development actions to explore the use of
novel sources of food protein.
8. Agricultural research should be directed towards
understanding how to maintain outputs with reduced inputs.
To meet this objective, highly productive and more
resource-efficient crop varieties should be developed
through the most efficient methods, including modern
methods of gene editing. Simultaneously, investigations
of innovative agronomic practices should be given equal
priority. Such research needs to engage with, and meet
the needs of, small-scale farmers throughout the world,
not just the large agri-businesses.
9. The development of large numbers of smaller
sustainable farming businesses should be stated targets of
. Co-operatives and
mixed function farms, perhaps growing cereals and
vegetables along with livestock, and linked to markets and
food outlets could form an important part of the
agricultural sector. Sharing of expertise and knowledge, and
employment of the new technology will make these
unlike the old traditional farming model: whilst the
principles of organic farming will be harnessed so will
GM, remote sensing, and innovations in
optimisation, mechanisation and robotics. Circular economy
concepts should be the norm, with new
technologies to fully utilise non-food outputs and recycle
agricultural, food and human waste.
10. Non-traditional types of agriculture, including urban
agriculture should become a target for new research and
investment. This means not only small scale enterprises
that serve mostly a social good but also using these same
new technologies to enable significant proportions of
food to be grown. Other approaches could include:
indoor vertical farming using solar powered LED lighting
and environment control; roof top gardens; hi-tech
greenhouses bordering urban areas on wasteland; and
automated garage or kitchen appliances producing high
value food in the home, in the workplace and in schools
5 Prospects for a sustainable food future
Much of the knowledge and many of the technologies
required to deliver the above changes either exist or only need
development for application. Lack of knowledge and
technology are not the principal problems. The problem is thinking
that the solutions are purely technical, a philosophy that has
dominated agri-food research for the last century and given
rise to the failed policies that have resulted. But the solutions
to the food security problem are not purely technical ones that
can simply be applied in a linear manner
. There has to be a realisation of the
complexity, diversity, connectivity and unpredictability of the
agrifood system – one that involves all the features of a biological
ecosystem, the physical geography, the climate and not least
human behaviour and the vastly complicated global
socioeconomic political system in which we live
(Horton et al.
. Each of the 10 suggested changes need to be
empirically tested in specific local contexts, and knowledge gained
fed back into decision making – what are the effects, do they
bring about the desired change, are the changes sustained, are
there unforeseen side effects, are they scalable etc. Testing,
evaluation and implementation require unprecedented levels
of collaboration across different sectors, with sharing of data
and information and total transparency. Somehow, all
stakeholders need to be engaged. The danger is that
the level of complexity and the degree of collaboration
required is so daunting that either there is recourse to
the previous (failed) simplistic technical approaches or
there is complete paralysis and inaction. Thus, in order
that a new sustainable agri-food system is put in place,
it is necessary to work through how to formulate the
policies necessary for such change, and how to
implement them in a way that reconciles the multiple diverse
interests of stakeholders. That is the challenge. In the
UK, this challenge is recognised in recent reports from
(e.g WRAP 2017; GFS 2017)
But, because food is ultimately highly personal and
cultural, embedded with emotion and preference, it is
through citizen pressure that such change will be
(Horton et al. 2016)
, although studies suggest also
the huge importance of political leadership to carry
(Amel et al. 2017)
. Whether such
leadership will emerge remains to be seen.
Acknowledgements The author wishes to thank Professors Duncan
Cameron, Peter Jackson and Tony Ryan OBE for the many discussions
that provoked the writing of this article.
Funding PH is supported by a generous gift from the Grantham
Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, which supports the
Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures in which he works.
Compliance with ethical standards
Competing interest I have no competing interests.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative
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