New food system needed to feed world's growing population

Posted: 25 January 2011

 A new report, published by Foresight, the UK Government’s futures think tank, argues for fundamental change to the global food system, and beyond if a rapidly expanding global population is to be fed over the next 40 years.

The Foresight project ‘Global Food and Farming Futures’ has examined how a rapidly expanding global population can be fed in a healthy and sustainable way. Multiple threats are converging on the food system, including changes in the climate, competition for resources such as water supply and energy, and changing consumption patterns provide considerable challenges to sustaining the world’s food supply.

Organic farmer, India
Organic farmer in India ploughing green manure into his fields. Photo © Organic India

 Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Foresight programme, said:

“The Foresight study shows that the food system is already failing in at least two ways. Firstly, it is unsustainable, with resources being used faster than they can be naturally replenished. Secondly, a billion people are going hungry with another billion people suffering from ‘hidden hunger’, whilst a billion people are over-consuming.

“The project has helped to identify a wide range of possible actions that can meet the challenges facing food and farming, both now and in the future.”

The report’s main findings are:

  • Threat of hunger could increase: Efforts to end hunger internationally are already stalling, and without decisive action food prices could rise substantially over the next 40 years making the situation worse. This will affect us all - as more of the world suffers from hunger social tensions will increase, as will the threat of conflict and migration. Wider economic growth will also be affected.
  • The global food system is living outside its means, consuming resources faster than are naturally replenished. It must be redesigned to bring sustainability centre stage: Substantial changes will be required throughout the food system and related areas, such as water use, energy use and addressing climate change, if food security is to be provided for a predicted nine billion or more people out to 2050.
  • There is no quick fix: The potential threats converging on the global food system are so great that action is needed across many fronts, from changing diets to eliminating food waste.

Professor Beddington added: "With the global population set to rise and food prices likely to increase, it is crucial that a wide range of complementary actions from policy makers, farmers and businesses are taken now. Urgent change is required throughout the food system to bring sustainability centre stage and end hunger. It is also vital for other areas, such as climate change mitigation, conflict, and economic growth.”

Three important areas for change include:

  • Minimising waste in all areas of the food system: An amount of food equivalent to about a quarter of today’s annual production could potentially be saved by 2050 if the current estimate of global food waste is halved.
  • Balancing future demand and supply in the food system: This could include helping businesses to measure the environmental impacts of food so that consumers can choose products that promote sustainability.
  • Improving governance of the global food system: It is important to reduce subsidies and trade barriers that disadvantage poor countries. The project’s economic modelling shows how trade restrictions can amplify shocks in the food system, raising prices further.


The challenges identified in the report show an urgent need to link food and agriculture policy to wider global governance agendas such as climate change mitigation, biodiversity and international development. Without this link a decision in one area could compromise important objectives in another.

Commenting on the report, Friends of the Earth's Food Campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran said: "This report shines a spotlight on our mounting food and farming crisis that can only be tackled with far-reaching reforms of the world's food system.

"But with millions already starving in a world of plenty, we need to look at
what we're doing with the food we produce, not just how we produce it. The food system is forcing poor farmers to grow crops for export - to feed factory farms and make biofuels in rich countries - instead of feeding hungry local people.

"The report also pins its hope on GM technology when crop science has moved on. Other technologies have delivered drought-resistant plants while GM crops have proved to be a disaster for the environment and farmers. Feeding the world without trashing it means supporting small farmers to feed local communities, wasting less and rethinking our diets."

 Download the full report at www.bis.gov.uk/foresight