By Joern Fischer
In our recent review of papers on the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation, we showed that there was a “biophysical-technical” branch of work. This branch talks about food security, when actually, it’s largely about food production. A recent paper in Nature Communications provides a perfect example of some of the most widespread (mis-)framings in a food security context currently prevalent among scientists (especially natural scientists).
The paper is by Sattari et al. It’s on global phosphorus budgets, and it’s an interesting read. I see nothing wrong with the research as such, but I found its Abstract irritating. I’ll copy parts of it here, with the “offending” bits highlighted:
“Grasslands provide grass and fodder to sustain the growing need for ruminant meat and milk. Soil nutrients in grasslands are removed through withdrawal in these livestock products and through animal manure that originates from grasslands and is spread in croplands. … Combined with requirements for cropland, we estimate that mineral P fertilizer use must double by 2050 to sustain future crop and grassland production. Our findings point to the need to better understand the role of grasslands and their soil P status and their importance for global food security.”
Framing is all about the hook to sell your paper, and it’s typically evident in the first sentence, and the last big “so-what”. Here, the authors chose to frame their paper around “the need” for more meat and milk, and “global food security”. Both of these statements show utter disregard for what actually drives food security. What’s growing is the global demand for meat and milk, especially in China and India (respectively). What’s at stake by producing more milk and meat is meeting the wants of the increasingly wealthy, not anyone’s needs (and especially not the need to the most food insecure people). Similarly, global food security is not currently limited by a lack of milk and meat — rather, the nations with the highest levels of consumption of these goods are most plagued by obesity.
Petty, perhaps, but it’s what continues to be sold to us by journals that pride themselves of being the most authoritative sources of the best science. Reading simplistic statements on global food security again and again in these journals shows a fundamental lack of respect and understanding for the difference between what is (high demand for meat) and what ought to be (e.g. sustainability); and an implicit and uncritical subjugation to growth-mania (accepting that growth is the thing that ought to be). You can just about bet that anything with an impact factor higher than 10 will routinely publish things under the banner of “food security” that are actually primarily about “global commodity production”. It’s time to realise that these are two different things!
I’m sorry to single out Sattari et al., and I repeat that their study seems quite fine to me — just not the framing in the Abstract. By continuing to accept overly simplistic framings in the context of “global food security”, we risk to continuously miss the point in our science and policy advice.
So, to all editors and authors engaged with high-impact journals: please stop perpetuating this unhelpful trend!