Global food security champion Prof Tim Benton discusses East Anglia’s role in feeding the world

People living in arable heartlands like East Anglia should take a global view of their region's duty to help feed a burgeoning world population, according to a government advisor. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.

In an ideal world, many of us would enjoy eating nothing but organic foods, all lovingly tended by home-grown producers and bought from local suppliers.

But the exponential acceleration of human population growth – hurtling towards nine billion by the middle of this century – means those lucky enough to inhabit the earth's most fertile lands must be prepared to sacrifice that wholesome dream.

So says Prof Tim Benton, a senior agricultural advisor to the government, who was invited by the East of England Co-operative Society to give a public lecture at the Forum in Norwich this week.

The UK's champion for Global Food Security said the earth's bread baskets need to take a global view of their responsibilities to feed millions more mouths from a finite supply of land.

And, for arable heartlands like East Anglia, that means intensifying the specialist production for which the area is best suited – but done in a way which minimises damage to a cherished environment.

Prof Benton outlined the vast scale of the challenge, with the global population expected to increase 35pc by 2050 and the demand for food expected to rise by 70pc – but with no more unused land available for cultivation.

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The difficulty of feeding these people – and, crucially, doing it sustainably – is amplified by the impact of climate change threatening crop yields, regulatory pressures and increasing competition for land and water use.

Prof Benton said an abundance of cheap food cannot be generated without ecological impacts somewhere in the world, and that tough choices needed to be made in agricultural areas like Norfolk and Suffolk. Here, he argued that areas of intensively-farmed land could be managed alongside non-cropped plots to allow maximum food production while maintaining the environment for wildlife and biodiversity.

But he said the admirable ideals of self-sufficiency and organic growing would only reduce yields from productive land, and 'export' the inevitable ecological impact to poorer countries.

'There is no more available land and we already use 70pc of the world's water for agriculture,' said Prof Benton.

'In so many dimensions, we are heading for a breakdown in global systems and the costs, particularly in the developing world, will be too much to bear.

'For most people, it is not a question of buying locally-sourced food, because most things that people eat are sourced globally, so the idea of becoming self-sufficient as a local society is not a viable end-point. We must recognise that we cannot have everything we want.

'The EU would love to increase organic agriculture because we all want to live in a nice environment. But we are not self-sufficient in Europe so if we increase organic production our yields will go down and we will need to import more food and we will be asking someone else to produce our food for us. That could be in sub-Saharan Africa where production is less regulated and comes at a cost to the environment. We would be exporting the environmental cost, and someone else pays it. Organic farming creates an unwanted effect that's anti-sustainable because the cost will be paid somewhere else.'

Prof Benton said while it is important to reduce food wastage, stop over-consumption, farm more efficiently and rethink our 'risk-aversion' regarding pesticides and genetically modified (GM) foods, the real solution of producing more from less land must mean the 'sustainable intensification' of farming.

He said: 'There is no silver bullet to deal with all these issues.

'Even if we deal with over-consumption and wastage, it is difficult to imagine behaviour changes sufficient to mean that no increases will be needed in food production. So how do we do that?

'There is no more land available globally and there are a whole range of constraints on resources and regulatory squeezes on nitrogen, fuel, phosphates and pesticides. By wanting to go pesticide-free we are saying we will cope with lower yields, but we have no more land for that shortfall to be made up elsewhere. So how do we square that circle?

'The risk involved in going pesticide-free is very, very small, and every time I go out on my bike there is a much greater chance I could damage myself than eating a lifetime of food with pesticides on it. Part of the solution is a much better societal way of dealing with risk.'

Prof Benton, who described himself as an academic and a conservationist, said it was vital to recognise the values of the landscape beyond agriculture, including biodiversity and 'natural capital'.

But he said we must not be over-swayed by local environmental concerns, when faced with the wider responsibility of feeding the world.

'To sustain food production in the long-term we need to be sustainable,' he said.

'That doubles the challenge.

'It has been found that areas of intensive farming, plus a network of non-cropped land, can be better than extensive farming throughout

'If you farm one area hard and get your product out of that, you can be softer on another area and it can be better for the landscape overall. If you farm the arable land in Norfolk hard then maybe you can draw a boundary around Thetford Forest or the Broads.

'Looking at a country scale, we know that if we are farming East Anglia hard for the benefit that land can give, maybe we can leave parts of Cornwall or the Lake District.

'If you look at a global scale we must recognise that we in Europe are living in the bread basket of the world.

'So what should we do? Should we drive our land hard for the benefit of the world or should we draw a big boundary around the EU and say we will do what we want with our land because it is ours? Or should we produce food for the world and give it away?

'These are difficult choices, and if we choose not to do it because we are protecting our environment then we will cause pressure and wars in other places.

'I am a conservationist, but I have to weight my value of seeing birds like skylarks in a field in Norfolk with losing big chunks of sub-Saharan Africa.

'I recognise that if skylarks are lost from this area, they will still exist in a global sense.

'But if we reduce our yields to conserve them in a particular area, there will be an impact in other parts of the world.'

Prof Benton outlined a raft of partial solutions including reducing waste, managing soil better to increase fertility, introducing precision farming and exploring chemical innovations, new crops and varieties – including a role for GM food technologies.

After being questioned on the perceived dangers of GM foods, he said: 'It has the potential to be a solution. If we banned the technology because it had the potential to be risky we would also have banned computers and mobile phones.

'We have lived in a world with GM for 30 years and no environmental catastrophe has happened. We do have to be aware of risks but we need to balance those risks.'

As champion of the UK's Global Food Security programme, Prof Benton helps coordinate research across government departments and in the EU, and plays a role in feeding knowledge into policy decision-making.

'There are huge choices ahead around how we make agriculture more sustainable; how we change our diets and how we weight local concerns versus international impacts,' he said.

'We can all do something about this and part of the change in society must come from us. It is only when society starts to change that policy will start to latch on to it.

'But we also have to acknowledge that we cannot have it all and we need to decide what to fight for.

'I would love to live in a pristine world where we had organic food and slow-grown animals who live a happy life.

'But we cannot have everything we want.'