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Feeding people sustainably

News Icon 17/06/2014

“Intensification – the industrialisation of the countryside – is anything but sustainable.”

How to feed more people from the same amount of land? That is the challenge for the 21st Century. In my view, it is absolutely the right question to be asking. It was also the nub of the conversation at York’s Festival of Ideas over the weekend where food system expert, Professor Charles Godfray from Oxford University, gave the opening keynote address on the challenge of feeding 9-10 billion people. What worries me is how quickly the right question can get distorted.

Some years ago, Charles chose the term, ‘sustainable intensification’ to describe what he felt needed to be done. It was a phrase that I believe has since become a hostage to fortune. From the platform in York, I was clear that I find much to agree with in Charles’ analysis and am absolutely with him in the need to get more food from the same area of land with less impact on the environment.

What really worries me about ‘sustainable intensification’, is that it is dangerously misleading; so much so that agri-industrial interests have leapt on this call to arms, hijacking the phrase in a bid to crank up intensive farming. And in so doing, some of the meaning of Professor Godfray’s careful words has been lost.

Charles asked me in York what term I would use instead of ‘sustainable intensification’. On reflection, it strikes me that ‘feeding people sustainably’ is a much better term; after all it sums up the challenge without being prescriptive about how we achieve it.

It is much better, in my view, than ‘sustainable intensification’, something I explore at length in Farmageddon, showing that intensification – the industrialisation of the countryside – is anything but sustainable.

World population is thought likely to plateau at 10 billion people by the end of the century, three billion more than at present. In York, each speaker was asked whether we can feed that number of people. Both Charles and I replied yes; as did other speakers.

We live in a world of plenty. Globally, we already produce enough food to feed 11-14 billion people. The trouble is we waste more than half of it. A lot of it is wasted by throwing stuff away in our homes, at the supermarket or during processing. However, the biggest single area of food waste on the planet is in feeding precious arable crops to industrially reared animals. If the grain used to feed industrially reared animals were fed directly to people, we could feed an extra four billion.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota, USA, agree. They have called for a change in the way we define farm outputs. Instead of looking narrowly at the amount produced in terms of tonnes per hectare; they argue for a more human-centred approach; the number of people fed per hectare.

Their study looked at world average crop production and compared it with the number of people being fed. What they found is that globally, crop production could be feeding 10 people per hectare, but is only feeding six. In the USA, the spiritual home of industrial agriculture, croplands produce enough to feed a massive 16 people per hectare. However, when it comes to the number of people fed per hectare, the United States is amongst the most inefficient, feeding less than six people per hectare.

So where do these lost calories go? Well, they are used up by the animals in the simple act of living; only 30% of the food value of the feed is returned once it has been converted to meat, milk and eggs.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have farm animals. What we need is to end the competition between people and animals for food, something that can be achieved by returning domestic animals to where they belong; on the farm: on pasture, marginal lands, woodlands, where they are deft at converting things we can’t eat into things that we can.

When we look at the food system through the lens of how many people can be fed, instead of tonnes per hectare, it gives a very different perspective on the ‘efficiency’ of production; and one that is much more practical when it comes to meeting the challenge of ‘feeding people sustainably’.

Next stop on the Farmageddon tour: Thursday 19th JuneEurogroup for Animals conference ‘Putting animal welfare at the heart of the EU’, Brussels.

To get your copy of ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’, click here.


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