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Attendees of the latest RSB Policy Lates discussion heard a variety of staggering and sobering statistics on the need to reform the way we grow and consume food.

Over a hundred people watched the third Policy Lates event of 2021 on the theme of ‘Rethinking our food system’, exploring the complexities of improving food security and health while also reversing biodiversity loss and achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Policy Lates speakers

L:R - Dr Simon Doherty FRSB FRCVS (chair), Tamsin Cooper, Professor Grant Stentiford, Ruth Edge, Riaz Bhunnoo

Tamsin Cooper, director of the National Food Strategy – the recent independent review of all aspects of the food system in England – provided several extraordinary facts to set out the need for change in terms of our health and environmental impact, such as:

- By 2035, the NHS is predicted to be spending more on complications of type 2 diabetes than the entire spend on cancer – a symptom of the ‘junk food cycle’ that Western society has become stuck in.
- 85% of agricultural land in the UK is used for livestock – despite it being among the least efficient forms of food production.
- The combined biomass of the world’s domesticated animals is 22 times that of all the wild animals on the planet – an indication of the unsustainable quantities of meat and dairy being produced around the world today.

Cooper provided details of the work that went into producing the National Food Strategy, and some of its more immediate recommendations around diversity of land use, junk food and dietary inequality. A white paper in response to the recommendations will be published by Government in 2022.

Professor Grant Stentiford, from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, told the event how seafood is often overlooked in debates about food security, despite contributing 180 million metric tonnes of food globally a year. So-called ‘blue food’ is often far less resource-intensive than land-based food production and there is room for further efficiencies, he said.

By 2050 more than half of the world’s seafood is likely to be produced via aquaculture to keep up with rising demand, but the majority of the 20 countries comprising the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea lack long term strategies for aquaculture. Stentiford said it will be important to ensure that the health of animals and water quality are written into the development and expansion of nations’ aquaculture systems.

Further talks were given by Ruth Edge from the National Farmers Union and Riaz Bhunnoo, director of the Global Food Security programme, a partnership of the main funders of research on healthy, sustainable and resilient food systems.

Edge highlighted the difficulty of trade-offs between raising welfare, increasing productivity and reducing emissions, and the limitations of what customer preference and pressure can achieve.

Bhunnoo explained how the Global Food Security programme recently published a paper on different scenarios to transform the food system to meet global needs and agreements. “There is no single scenario with all-round benefits and society must determine what it wants to prioritise in future,” he said.

Once again, attendees heard more mind-blowing statistics on the scale of the issue at hand, such as that in the next 40 years, the planet will need to produce more food than has been produced in the whole of human history; and that two-thirds of the world’s plant-based food comes from just nine species of crop. This lack of diversity is a serious threat to resilience against climate change, extreme weather and other unpredictable shocks that could quickly cause price spikes and social unrest.

On a positive note, Bhunnoo said that with optimised land use and reduced consumption, the Earth could support over 10 billion people. But this does not take into account land that may be required for climate mitigation, he said.

Dr Simon Doherty FRSB, from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, introduced and chaired the discussion, and directed questions from attendees to the panel on subjects including food waste, alternative food sources and innovation in farming. 

This event was part of the RSB Policy Lates series, supported by the Policy Lates Working Group: the Biochemical Society, the British Pharmacological Society, the Society for Applied Microbiology, the Society for Experimental Biology, and The Physiological Society.

Footage from the event will be available soon on the RSB’s YouTube channel.