Sir Charles Godfray is a population biologist and the Director of Oxford Martin School. He has published work in ecology, evolution and epidemiology, and a particular interest in how the world’s food system will need to adapt to cope with challenges such as climate change.
At the City Food and Drink Lecture at the Guildhall, London, Godfray spoke about the immense progress made in the past few decades in bringing people out of poverty and helping them eat well.
He also warned of the challenges ahead for the global food system, such as instability and military conflict, the dangers of deglobalisation, and climate change.
Education, wealth and population growth
One of the biggest factors in being able to feed the world is being aware of the growing number of mouths to feed. The world’s population recently, of course, reached eight billion.
As a population biologist, Godfray is optimistic about how well population, and the causes for its growth, is now understood. “Probably the most extraordinary thing in my adult intellectual life,” he said, “is that we now know that if we bring people out of poverty, if we educate children, especially girls, if we provide access to reproductive health care, then human fertility, humans fecundity, reduces.”
However, the world becoming richer is not without its challenges. “When populations get richer,” Godfray pointed out, “they demand more meat, they demand other foods that require more resources to produce. We will see demand for food going up this century.
“So the extra calories we’ll need to produce to feed that 10bn rough population is somewhere between 30 or 60% increase on what it is now.”
This, suggested Godfray, presents some challenges for the UK. “My personal opinion,” said Godfray, “is that we should try and increase the amount of food that we produce to meet this global demand, and actually do something good for the economy.
“We can actually produce more food, we can have better biodiversity, and we can use the land for other things, such as carbon sequestration, such as climate action.”
In the end, Godfray recommended sustainable intensification, which is when production on agricultural land is increased using sustainable methods.
“That has all sorts of different components,” he said. “It has a genetic intensification, has a breeding ecological intensification, using many of the insights from the non-traditional farming practices of anchoring regenerative agriculture.
“It's going to be associated with a high-intensity, high-yielding agriculture . . . there'll be other times when we have within the same farm very much a multifunctional approach, producing some food but sacrificing some yields, for example, for biodiversity.”
Conflict and hunger
Despite this optimism, in many parts of the world hunger and malnourishment is not decreasing.
“We are having problems with an increase in the number of people who are seriously hungry,” said Godfray. “But if you look at where these people are, they are largely in the areas where there are civil or international conflict environments.”
According to Action Against Hunger, an NGO, the six countries where hunger is most severe are Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen – all who are, or who were recently, involved in armed conflict, involving both formal wars and insurgencies.
Godfray asks “what are the problems within the food system, and what are the problems, in this case, associated with geopolitics?”
The threat of (and to) the food system
The food system contributes significantly towards climate change. According to Godfray, even if we got rid of all other causes of climate change, the global food system would still push us over the 1.5 °C of warming above industrial levels threshold that would cause significant damage to the planet.
However, for over a billion people around the world, animal agriculture, provides their livelihood. Without it, many would not survive. Godfray understands that a compromise needs to be made between cutting down on meat and dairy production, and sustaining the livelihoods of those who produce it.
“This is an unpopular opinion,” Godfray said, “but if we have any hope globally of reaching net zero, we do need to eat less meat and dairy. And I think we have to do this with a non-judgmental narrative.
“And we have to take cognizance of the people whose livelihoods depend on producing dairy and livestock at the moment. We should be looking at alternative income streams that can tie into those farms.”
Deglobalising the food system?
According to Godfray, we are in a period of deglobalisation, the fragmentation of a supply chain that once stretched around the world.
“We need to be really sure that the global food system is resilient to the shocks that might be thrown at it,” Godfray warns.
“We’re going through a period of deglobalisation. Now deglobalisation is possible for, say, semiconductor manufacturing, you can build a platform in China, the United States or Europe.
“You can't move the Argentinian wheat basket to somewhere else. We have to have a globalised food system. And I worry about some of the corollaries of deglobalisation in other areas other areas may have transaction costs that make the global food system less reliable.”