Keeping food on our plates: The fight against hunger and global collapse

Crops growing in arid soil

No matter where we live, or what our lives look like, the daily ritual of what we eat is central to us all. But a report to the UN, co-authored by Anglia Ruskin University expert, Prof Aled Jones, warns that radical action must be taken today, to avoid a food supply crisis.

'Without getting this right, there's no point doing anything,' he says. 'This is urgent.'

The study for the Global Food Security programme outlines four extreme scenarios which could be possible by 2050.  It has long been recognised that the UN's Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals will require countries to adapt and transform. But exploring what the food on our plates could actually look like and how it gets there opens up a fascinating glimpse of the future, from insect meals, to vertical farms and a whole new agricultural revolution.

Experts from around the world fed into the research, including representatives from different governments, the World Bank, business leaders, international academics and farmers.

'These are thought experiments, to test out what could happen," Prof Jones says. 'I don't think it's something people talk about in the pub at the moment, but the different scenarios help to paint a picture of how all our lives could be affected.'

Brought to life by short animations, the scenarios paint a picture of big changes to our eating habits, as the UK tackles climate change commitments while also experiencing milder, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers. Each of the outcomes follow a particular route, which results in four radically different futures.

A "collaborative" food system would require global agreements in order to maximise food yields. The "commercial" system would rely on heavily controlled imports, creating stockpiles of food. In a "communal" scenario, the entire stock of land would be redistributed across the UK, and in the "carbon-neutral" scenario, there would be more food grown at home on "mega-farms".

The scenarios are not presented as a prediction of the future. But there are some common outcomes, such as a more plant-based diet, and higher food prices.

And yet it's not all about a changing menu. Prof Jones warns that a disrupted food supply presents a real threat to global stability, with an increase in famine and disorder, and the risk of disruption to key markets such as oil. 'Without significant change then several countries will collapse, and the implication of those countries collapsing could be very severe for everyone else.'

The impact, he argues, is already being felt. In 2007, there was a five-fold increase in the price of certain grains due to drought and floods in some production areas. Real life events such as this illustrate the potential volatility of food production, which he warns could have wide-ranging consequences.

'You will start to see civil unrest at the very least, if not entire regions collapsing. And then we won't get any imports or exports from those regions.

'If the Middle East collapses, it's not a pretty outcome.'

Despite this, the study also highlights potential benefits for the future. Reducing food waste would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and allow more land to be used for reforestation and renewable energy. A shift away from red meat could help reduce diet-related diseases and create space for wildlife to thrive.

In fact, the pace of change so far has taken the industry by surprise, from the rise of plant-based diets, to concerns about the risk of obesity in the wake of COVID-19.

'Greggs doing a vegan sausage roll would have been unheard of five years ago,' Prof Jones laughs. 'And although we have a lot to catch up on, if people are really starting to take notice, there's lots that we can do.'

So what about the future? Well Prof Jones is the first to concede that solving the world's food problems is no quick fix. But he believes a global approach has to be at the very centre. And perhaps surprisingly, there may be some lessons to be learned from moneymaking giants such as Amazon and Google who manage to transcend geographical boundaries.

Prof Jones believes there could be global cooperative style partnerships created to work with governments, put for the best use of global society. And when the world works together, he says, things can move quickly.

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