By Joern Fischer
Tim Benton also gave his plenary talk at the conference I already reported on in the last blog entry. To start with, he highlighted that the average American family consumes more unequal food bundles, and vastly more calories than – for example – a sub-Saharan African family.
Regarding food security, Tim very quickly argued that food prices were important, implying that the supply side therefore was important. Given dietary changes then, it was inevitable to increase global food demand. Moreover, the food system was very much globalized; again, this highlighted the inevitability of taking a global perspective on how to address food security.
Unlike Jon, Tim was somewhat more pessimistic. Regarding climate change, for example, we are currently tracking the worst case IPCC scenario – a 4 degree increase by 2100. Extreme climate events that happened only every few centuries now happen as commonly as (almost) every decade. Tim highlighted that climate change was very much going to reduce food production in the decades to come, in several of the areas currently responsible for producing most of the world’s food.
In a nutshell, Tim’s argument went like this: Land is finite, and demand is growing, hence if the market works, reducing yield in one place (e.g. due to climate change), will put pressure to increase yields elsewhere (like it or not). Based on this assumption of market economics, Tim predicted there would be pressure for intensification on Europe (because other areas will be more severely affected by climate change).
Tim went on to talk about sustainable intensification – he actually cited the Brundtland definition, thereby signaling the need to consider social, economic and environmental issues (i.e. not only environmental issues). Right now, Tim highlighted, natural capital was providing free subsidies to agriculture. What if these subsidies decline in the future? Such decline could risk that systems may actually collapse. Moreover, different indicators of sustainability in farming systems can be negatively correlated, suggesting there may be uncomfortable trade-offs. Having more of everything therefore may be difficult.
Importantly, Tim emphasized that there was no simple solution as to what constituted sustainable agriculture. The benefits of organic farming, for example, may only be useful for biodiversity if we are dealing with low yielding organic production (Gabriel et al. J Appl Ecol). A key challenge thus is to manage entire farming landscapes, including areas that harbor ecosystem services; which in turn, may cause trade-offs with other variables (such as yields and profits).
One potential solution might be to select landscapes that can be safely intensified without losing a lot of ecosystem services, while avoiding intensification in areas that would be costly to biodiversity and ecosystem services. Smart multi-functional landscapes therefore need to be designed, and incentives must be developed for farmers to actually implement such spatial planning – despite incentives to intensify likely growing in the future. Tim mentioned that diversification of landscapes may improve the resilience of farming systems, and this could be a possible incentive for farmers (Dave Abson wrote an earlier blog entry on this – Tim cited his work).
Finally, Tim emphasized the importance of the need to change our attitudes towards food. To have everything, cheap and abundant, just won’t be possible. Tim emphasized that it was not all about production – indeed, an increasing number of people is obese, and a lot of food gets wasted. The current situation is one where we expect that more consumption will endlessly improve human well-being – in a food context, this is not true and is causing a lot of environmental as well as health problems. Changing diets therefore could be a particularly powerful strategy to foster sustainability. At this point, Tim gave a beautiful quote by Tim Lang: “The rich have to consume less and differently so that the poor consume more and differently”.
Key challenges ahead, according to Tim, were lengthening the view of governments; finding a business case as to why it is worthwhile to invest in the environment (e.g. a resilience argument?); and we needed organizational cultural changes. Finally, academics needed to communicate their messages more clearly, and needed to better articulate how something can change, and what the actual societal impacts were going to be. Just stating that “we need conservation”, for example, was not enough, because this comes at a cost to other aspects of well-being …. and ignoring these costs was something that ecologists had done for a long time.
Like Jon Foley before him, Tim gave a great overview of some of the most pressing issues of our time, with many important facts and nuances that cannot be ignored.