Episode 1 transcript

This is a transcript of Episode 1: What is food security? Listen to the audio version here.


Ciara: Hi and welcome to the first episode of Greedy Planet, with me Ciara Dangerfield

Andrew: And me Andrew Craig.

Ciara: During this series we’re going to look a bit more at the issues related to global security, find out what the challenges are, and what people are trying to do about it

Andrew: But what is food security? In this first episode we’re going to find out.

Ciara: So Andrew and I are actually scientists in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and both of us only came to the world of food security really very recently. Before that both of us actually worked in public health. And I don’t know about you Andrew but I didn’t know what food security was before I started, did you?

Andrew: No, still not sure that I do!

Ciara: So we’re still learning, but if I had to said in your interview, so you have to answer it, “What is food security?”, what do you think you would have said?

Andrew: I probably would have said something about building big walls around farms, to keep our food secure.

Ciara: So making sure you have enough food to eat.

Andrew: Yeah

Ciara: So that’s kind of the logical idea, but actually it’s about a lot more than just making sure you have enough food.

Andrew: OK, what else is there?

Ciara: So have you heard about food waste?

Andrew: Yes, I contribute a fair amount of food waste myself`

Ciara: I probably do too, so food waste is actually a food security issue. And what about food banks, have you heard about those?

Andrew: Yes I have.

Ciara: So you may have heard that this year in the UK, the number of people accessing food banks topped one million, so it’s a big issue. So if you’ve heard about food banks, that’s a food security issue.

Ciara: Or what about how many people are going hungry in the world today. Do you want to hazard a guess as to how many you think that is?

Andrew: Hmmm, I think it’s a lot… a hundred million?

Ciara: Nearly eight hundred million. Yeah, it’s quite sad really. So obviously not everybody has enough food, for some reason, that again is another food security issue

Andrew: OK, so we’ve got a few food security issues here, what’s linking them together?

Ciara: Well, to find out more we went to speak to historical geographer Dr David Nally, who’s based at the University of Cambridge.

Dr David Nally: Well, like the term “globalisation”, the term “food security” originated in the 1970s and it was meant as a shorthand to describe conditions that lead to a food crisis. It was meant to replace more conventional words, such as hunger and starvation, which were seen as emotive and replace them with more precise, clinical, scientific analyses. But the term itself, and the concept behind it, we might say is as old as humanity itself. If we go back to an old text like the bible, we have the Egyptians marching on Pharoah demanding bread, presenting their predicament to the seats of power. We have Roman emperors subsidising the supply of grain to keep the population with enough food, but to also keep them placated. An angry population might be a rebellious population. Then if we track forward in time we have a poem by Rudyard Kipling called the White Man’s Burden with the oft quoted lines about the imperial need to fill full the mouth of famine. Each of these instance I would say are historical examples of what food security is. Although in the latter case, in the language of 19th century imperialism being racist and xenophobic and so on. But it’s really about the conditions under which a population can obtain enough food for sustenance.

Andrew: So we were kind of right, it is about protecting your food.

Ciara: So in the UK then we must be food secure right? If you walk into any supermarket when do you ever see them having run out of food?

Andrew: Never, but at the start we were talking about food banks, and you were saying that’s a problem

Ciara: Yes, so that is a problem in the UK, which means that clearly food security isn’t just about having enough food available as Dr David Nally will now explain

Dr David Nally: The FAO, the UN’s food and agricultural organisation, says there are “three pillars” (three key ideas if you like) behind “food security” the term. They are: availability, access, and use. But each of them, when you begin to unpack them, are more complex than they might first appear. So for example, the question of availability: do we concentrate on supply or demand issues? Is it the quantity of food, or is it how it’s used? One common misconception about situations of hunger, food crisis (and famines in the more severe manifestation of a food crisis), is that it is simply a case of there not being enough food. It seems like an intuitive understanding of why people begin to starve, but not necessarily so when you begin to unpack it. One of the most famous scholars in this respect is an Indian economist called Amartya Sen, who wrote a book in the eighties that tackled this precise question. One of his case studies was Bengal in 1943, and at the time Bengal was ruled by the British, it experienced a severe famine, somewhere between one and three million people died. Sen was interested in the official explanation which was that the famine resulted from a severe shortfall in food supply, and he tested this by going back and getting the best records he could of what was the food available at the time. It turned out that the rice harvest of 1943 was actually larger than the rice harvest from a few years earlier in 1941, rice being one of the key crops in the region, and in 1941 obviously there was no food crisis. So Sen concluded, logically, that volume and availability isn’t itself a precondition for starvation, and he used a term which I find  quite helpful for thinking about this. He used the term “a boom time famine” to describe a situation where an economy can be doing quite well where you can have situations of high availability. So think of the present, where we have more than enough food to feed the planet, yet obviously some nearly 800 million people go hungry. So clearly in a very simplistic way, just making enough food available, producing more food, that reflex to boost supply, doesn’t necessarily translate into more calories for the poor or adequate calories for populations, it’s much more complex than that.

One could say the same about access. Again it’s useful to think about how access is mediated in our part of the world. In affluent countries, consumers access food largely by shopping, so price is something that become really important. If the price goes up, people might begin to think twice about the kinds of foods they bring home to their family, they might switch to cheaper foods, less nutritious foods, and they might consume less food. I’m sure you’ve been reading about food banks in Britain and the queues getting longer, so this is something we see here, food security is something that is part of the west itself. But however perilous the situation is here for the food poor, imagine what it’s like in countries in the global south, the urban poor, for example, who spend 80 to 90 percent of their income on food. There if you have a food price increase, it affects hugely their ability to feed themselves and their dependants. It becomes a survival issue rather than a penny pinching exercise at the till.

Ciara: So as well making sure there’s enough food available, we’ve also got to make sure that people have access to this food as David Nally was explaining to us, otherwise we’re in a situation of food insecurity.

Andrew: So we asked David Nally, “is this a global issue that affects all of us in different ways?”

Dr David Nally: One way to think about this is the geography of food insecurity, and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation produces a report every year called “The State of Food Security in the World” and that annual report gives us the latest census on food insecurity around the world. The latest report tells us there’s 795 million people around the planet who go to bed every night hungry. Which is nearly one in nine. But the regional variance is very significant, a high proportion in South Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa it’s nearly one in four. It’s the region with the most amount of food insecurity. But in the United States food insecurity is also a very big problem, the equivalent of food banks in Britain, especially in the wake of the financial crises, where incomes atrophy, and families are pinching, and welfare cuts, all of these enter into the assembly of food insecurity. Most households with a degree of resilience could maybe tackle one or two stresses, e.g. a loss of income for one member and so on, but if you get multiple things coming together it pulls people down and they find themselves in a situation where their food intake is limited, or changed.

Ciara: So the issues related to food security differ across the world, and as we discussed at the beginning of the show, in the UK we waste seven million tonnes of food. So we have a food surplus here, but across the world, around 800 million people go hungry.

Andrew: OK so the question is then can we take that surplus and send it to where there’s a shortage? We asked the chair of The Strategic Initiative In Global Food Security and head of the Epidemiology and Modelling group at the University of Cambridge Professor Chris Gilligan.

Prof. Chris Gilligan: The answer is no, it isn’t. We therefore need to think about how we can increase the yield and supply of food in some parts of the world, while managing health and well being in those parts where there is shortage of food, and others were people are eating too much of the wrong sort of food. Associated with this is the risk of sudden shocks in the system, we saw this back in approximately 2008 when we had some price spikes, that was associated with a fear of shortage, rather than a shortage itself. Some countries, decided that they wouldn’t export a particular maize or cereal grain at that time, and that prompted a series of reactions in which there was insufficient food for people to eat. That led to price spikes and that led to fear. So we have a number of interacting factors there. Having said that, it’s clear that we are going to need to increase the productivity of our land, and supply of food, and the management of both supply and demand, over of the entire globe. If we are going to continue to feed people.

Andrew: OK so we’ve got some issues of food shortages being compounded by economics here. So these are some big challenges.

Ciara: We as scientists initially think, “What can science and technology do to try and help address these massive challenges?” and we asked this exact question to Prof. Chris Gilligan.

Prof. Chris Gilligan: Again, there are a number of ways in which we can look at this. First we hope that continuing with science progress as we’ve got it, we might well say, “Is that going to be sufficient to feed the world?”.  So that is “business as usual”, accepting that with animal and plant breeding and agronomy, increased scientific understanding of how to grow and process food and supply it, would that feed many people? Yes it would feed more people, but when we do the calculations we see that “business as usual” on current increases of yield, is not going to be sufficient. Next we then think, “what areas might we have a major impact through science?” So in animal in plant breeding, could we have a sudden change where you can now feed many more people per unit area? There is hope for that, for example, in the nutrition of crops, changing how crops fix nitrogen (taking nitrogen from the atmosphere), introducing [that trait] into crops efficiently to increase yields, there is hope, but that’s a very demanding piece of research. Similarly changing the photosynthetic apparatus of the crop, which is far from efficient at present. There is hope in developing these methods so we get a sudden increase in yield. That’s something we hope will happen, but is going to be very demanding. Another approach is to think let’s look around the world as it is at present, and let’s look at what are the current yields for crop and livestock production relative to what we think would be the potential for that area. Can we actually increase that potential? Learning from the past as well as the present, so what would we have to do? And what would be the demands on inputs, particularly water? So that would be increasing the potential yield. All of those three strategies (business as usual, sudden change, and increasing potential to match the optimal yield) those are all supply driven, where science has a huge amount to offer. But when we look at the calculations here, there is still a very strong risk that we will not be producing sufficient food, and also if we’re not careful, by increasing the demands for fertiliser or irrigation for example, we would actually be moving into an unsustainable production of crop and livestock. Where we would be increasing the CO2 evolution, and that could again be very dangerous in relation to climate change.

So that takes us to the other side of the equation. Not just supply, but demand. Can we manage demand? Two very obvious ways of doing that are first to think about waste. There is a huge amount of waste at the moment, both pre- and post-harvest. Basically pre-harvest in the developing world, and post-harvest in the developed world, where we throw far too much food away. We can certainly do a lot more in respect to managing our waste, so can we cut back on pests and pathogens, can we cut back on people throwing away food, and spoilage? Finally, with respect to demand we might also change people’s expectation for food. So that would be changing expectation, for example, with respect to meat, which is a very inefficient way of processing the crops. That doesn’t mean to say we would need to force everybody to become non-meat eaters, but really just managing that demand.

To be continued.

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