After a period of relative stability, global food prices suddenly rose in 2008 and 2010, leading to widespread instances of civil unrest and the fall of several governments.
Food security rose rapidly up political agendas, prompting a renewed focus on the question the demographer Thomas Malthus first asked at the end of the 18th century: can food production keep pace with an expanding global population?
The good news is that the rate of population growth is declining nearly everywhere, and we know what to do to encourage this: bring people out of poverty, provide access to reproductive healthcare, and provide education, especially for girls. Less good news is that better-off people demand diets that have a greater environmental footprint. Food production also faces increased competition for land and water, and will be negatively affected by climate change in ways that are not yet clear.
The production, processing and consumption of food is a dynamically complex and interrelated whole that we call the food system.
We are also experiencing an epidemic in diseases associated with overconsumption and obesity, not just in high-income countries but increasingly in middle- and low-income countries. More positively, scientific progress is constantly providing new tools to increase yields and to produce food more efficiently, with fewer negative effects on the environment.
The production, processing and consumption of food is a dynamically complex and interrelated whole that we call the food system. Policies can have unexpected consequences as their effects ripple through the food system: for example, subsidies to maize farmers led to cheap corn syrup, which has contributed to unhealthy diets and obesity.
There are also complex interactions between what is often called the food-water-energy nexus. For example, the poor choice of crops for biofuels can increase competition for water and land, and raise food prices.
Oxford University has always been active in many areas of research in food (and water and energy), but over the last decade it has made a major effort to bring together everyone interested in food to be better able to take an interdisciplinary and system-level approach to the challenges ahead. Supported by the Oxford Martin School, the Future of Food Programme lists nearly 100 academics with interests in food – roughly a third each from the medical, natural and social sciences, plus a smaller number from the humanities.
The programme is embedded within the Oxford Networks for the Environment (ONE), which facilitate ‘nexus approaches’ linking food researchers with those working on water, energy, climate change and biodiversity.
An example of an interdisciplinary project that arose from linking together food researchers from throughout the University is the Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) project funded by a £5.5 million award from the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ programme. The project seeks to look at the multiple ways that the globally increasing consumption of meat and dairy is affecting the environment, our health and the economy.
Using cutting-edge quantitative social science methodologies, researchers are tracking changing narratives about consumption and non-consumption of meat, and evolving attitudes to meat substitutes.
A novel modelling approach combining economic, environmental and health modules allows the effects of policy change to be evaluated at national and global levels.
New analyses of large cohort studies are revealing unexpected links between meat and dairy consumption and health, both negative and positive. Using cutting-edge quantitative social science methodologies, researchers are tracking changing narratives about consumption and non-consumption of meat, and evolving attitudes to meat substitutes.
Working with other ONE groups, LEAP is developing new metrics for assessing the effects of livestock production on climate change, and looking to better understand how meat production affects competition for water and water quality, and how to mitigate its negative effects on biodiversity. Finally, nutritionists and behavioural scientists are using systematic reviews and experimental studies to work out what might encourage people to choose healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets.
With global population growth rates decelerating, it is now possible to conceive of a time when humanity’s demands on the planet for food will plateau or fall. The next few decades will show whether there will be a soft landing, or whether Malthus was right after all.
Research at Oxford will, we hope, help to make the former more likely.