Critiquing the ‘Double food production’ narrative

There is little doubt that 9-10 billion people will need to be fed during the next few decades. How we do it is open for debate. The research in our group focusses on the food-biodiversity nexus (Fischer et al 2017), i.e. the challenge of attaining food security for all while conserving global biodiversity. In this field a couple of arguments on how to achieve these goals dominate the discourse. If you want to read more about them then see here, here, here and here for some examples.

Typically, papers addressing these two challenges begin with statements about how agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity loss, something like “Land use change is the biggest threat to biodiversity”, and then the attention turns to food security. Here is where you will more often than not read about the need to increase food production by 70-100 % to feed 9-10 billion people. These two statements are very convenient, and compelling, arguments with which to frame a paper and convince policy-makers. The first statement is uncontroversial. The second statement however uses statistics which are the focus of an excellent critique in the Journal of Rural Studies (Tomlinson 2013).

Tomlinson presents a very good analysis of the origin of this statistic and how it is being used to support academic and policy discourses. I think it is important to note that I have used this statement (with some hesitation) because of its sheer simplicity and the perception that it’s nearly beyond reproach. The paper demonstrates that these data can be used out of context and lack nuance, with the effect of presenting a ‘cut-through’ message for academics and policy-makers. The analysis is far more comprehensive than this so I strongly encourage you to read this paper because it reveals how statistics can be used to influence very important discussions about how we deal with issues of public policy.

References

Tomlinson, I. (2013). Doubling food production to feed the 9 billion: A critical perspective on a key discourse of food security in the UK. Journal of Rural Studies 29: 81-90.

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3 thoughts on “Critiquing the ‘Double food production’ narrative

  1. I’m afraid that, in some ways, it gets worse from there. Three other important critiques of the doubling/70% increase narrative are two by Tim Wise:
    http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/Pubs/wp/13-04WiseFeedWorld2050.pdf and
    http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/Pubs/rp/ActionAid_rising_to_challenge.pdf

    And Doug Boucher’s:
    http://blog.ucsusa.org/doug-boucher/humanitys-need-for-food-in-2050-848

    Though other, more careful/applicable analyses have since been conducted, like Tilman & Clark’s, Boucher points out (and Wise notes) that the projected increase in “needed” food was originally measured in *dollars*. That is, the global food market was projected to be 70% greater in dollars, which is not a sensible unit on which to base future food security needs.

    • Yes, this is a very important point that Tomlinson raises – the analysis of need was based on growth of the economy. Thanks for pointing this out and adding more literature.

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