01 November 2019 - 03 November 2019

Food security in the 21st century: global prospects for resilient and sustainable food production systems

Chair: Mr Michael McCain

Conference in Toronto, in cooperation with the Canadian Ditchley Foundation

When Ditchley last addressed Food Security, in 2010, it was rightly observed that the situation, which was already widely considered to be a crisis, should not be allowed to worsen. The contrast between growing hunger in the lowest income countries, and rising obesity in developed countries (and indeed in certain developing countries), was highlighted. While optimism prevailed with respect to emerging solutions, the risk of a destabilizing Malthusian crisis could not be discounted. A decade later, world hunger and obesity are growing still. For the past three years, the UN has reported a rise in the number of people facing chronic food deprivation; the 2017 figures stand at 821 million.  Poor nutrition is responsible for nearly half of deaths in children before age 3; and one in four of the world's children suffer from stunted growth.

The global food industry, and society as a whole, faces issues of sustainability, waste and nutrition as demand for food increases. The food system contributes a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is one of the largest contributors to loss in biodiversity. Over a billion tonnes of food is wasted annually, a third of the total produced.  Over 2.5 billion people are overweight or obese.  This raises the question: are we still sleepwalking towards a Malthusian crisis?

Although chronic food shortages are arguably more invidious and damaging over the long-term than acute famine, the public is no longer as conscious of food shortages perhaps because we do not see so many acute famines. And when famines do arise, either the international response may be sufficiently efficient, or the famines occur in ungoverned space too dangerous for media to cover so that the public remains unaware. UN sustainable development goals may energize the professional development community and business, but they have not caught the popular imagination that Live Aid and the Ethiopian famine did in the 1980s. 

Then there is the global sustainability challenge. Although experts argue that we will need more than 50% more food by 2050 to meet global dietary requirements, meeting this demand under current industry practices is likely impossible due to environmental constraints. For instance, simply increasing production would inevitably require a large increase in irrigation water that is already under strain. It would lead to a substantial increase in land use for livestock production. Boosting production to meet demand under current technologies and management practices would result in almost a doubling of greenhouse gas emissions due to food-related emissions, which already account for up to one-third of human emissions. There is also the impact of pandemics such as African swine fever on the food supply that spread to all regions of China in 2019 or, even more frightening, a pandemic harmful to human health such as SARS in 2002-2003.  And lastly, solving the issue of food waste, which could substantially meet growing food requirements, demands dramatic changes to global supply chains and consumer practices.

Climate change was a concern in 2010 but is clearly more urgent now. Science points to many of the areas of the world with the greatest predicted population rises, generally in the southern hemisphere, that are also likely to suffer the greatest predicted reductions in agricultural production due to climate change. This leads to the risk of mass migration in a search for food. This is one of the factors that fuels a growing fear of uncontrolled immigration and a turning inwards by new political movements in developed northern countries. 

This Ditchley discussion will address the prospects for global food security in the 21st century bringing together a mix of experts, politicians, industrialists, technologists, commentators and campaigners under the chairmanship of Michael McCain, President and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods. Maple Leaf is a leading North American meat and plant protein company, with a vision to be the most sustainable protein company on earth. Under Mr. McCain’s leadership, Maple Leaf is implementing bold initiatives to be a leader in sustainable meat production and expand its leadership in plant-based protein.

We will look at food production and food consumption in the developed and developing world as a connected system. How can we bring about changes in food culture, consumption and production in the global food system that address the rising obesity crisis and meaningfully reduces food waste? How does agriculture need to adapt, especially in the southern hemisphere, to cope with the effects of climate change and to increase efficiencies and productivity? In areas where agricultural production is set to rise especially (but not solely), how can agriculture, food production and distribution mitigate the release of greenhouse gases and climate change?

What are the prospects from innovation in the technology and techniques of food production, the development of sources of protein replacement, new food sources (e.g. insects) and wholly new kinds of ‘farming’ from mega to vertical, through hydroponics and re-wilding? What impact can automation, autonomy and improved efficiency through AI have on food storage, distribution and waste and quality of food? 

How can governments, companies and campaigners work better together to deliver the radical changes that are required to how we produce food, to reduce escalating global demand for resource intensive meat proteins and implement sustainable livestock practices, and to dramatically reduce food waste? Who will lead globally from amongst the great powers and how can we achieve effective international coordination when a lot of the multilateral architecture is fractured?

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.