skip to content

Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment


In one of the discussion groups at the Parallel Forum in January 2015, David Nally, one of the witnesses, facilitated a discussion about his paper Governing precarious lives: land grabs, geopolitics, and ‘food security’ (2014) and urged the group to take a step back and look at the bigger picture to question some fundamental assumptions.

Global food security has been identified as one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st century. Many areas already experience severe food shortages, and with the human population steadily growing, expected to reach approximately 10 billion people in 2050, the demand for food will only increase. This places a huge pressure on available land, a pressure that is further exacerbated by climate change, and the pressure to use arable land for other purposes such as e.g. growing biofuel. It has become a truism that this yield gap – i.e. the difference between demand and supply – exist, and that the only way to close it is to produce more food, and to do so more efficiently. However, examining the present situation, the problem is not one of supply, but of distribution. We are already producing enough food to feed the entire population, and yet, over 800 million people wake up hungry every day. As noted by Amartya Sen, hunger is not caused by there not being enough food, it is caused by some people not having enough to eat. Thus, we need to ask ourselves, will the production of more food really lead to global food security and equitable distribution, or is the hard truth that in a system where food circulates according to market power, more food will simply lead to more food inequality?

When speaking of this yield gap, it is common practice to focus on the supply side. However, there are at least two other crucial aspects that have to be accounted for. Firstly, the amount of food wasted globally every year is staggering. The United Nations Environmental Programme estimates that one third of all food produced every year is wasted along various stages of the supply chain. Solely examining the United Kingdom, household food waste is estimated to 6.7 million tonnes annually, accounting for about 32% of the food purchased (FAO, 2011). Thus, we need to ask ourselves, is more food really what we need, or do we simply need to manage our available food better? Secondly, we need to critically assess human demand, and distinguish between want and need. From a sustainability perspective, it is clear that a behaviour change is needed, and that we should shift away the meat dominated diet we have today. Although achieving behaviour change is hard, the retail industry that make great financial gains from the current unsustainable trends have demonstrated that it is possible to alter human consumption behaviour. Perhaps it is time that to learn from the industry, and apply similar techniques to alter behaviour in a more sustainable direction?

If you would like more information about this discussion or the Parallel Forum, please contact Dr Rosamunde Almond ()