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World must transform food production or face unrest, scientists warn

Image credit: Andrii Yalanskyi | Dreamstime.com

The world must diversify its food production and consumption or face damaging supply disruptions that could result in suffering and social unrest, scientists have warned.

According to a new global study, the health and environmental benefits of transforming the way we farm would outweigh the cost of doing so. The authors of the study have also urged governments to do more to support sustainable agriculture.

“A small disruption in supply really can do a lot of damage and leads to huge price increases,” said Per Pharo of the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), the global alliance of economists and scientists behind the study. “That creates suffering and social unrest. And it will highly likely also lead to hunger and instability.”

The report says that global over-dependence on a relatively small number of staple foods will leave populations vulnerable to crop failures, with climate change adding to this strain. “Four different crops provide 60 per cent of our calories – wheat, rice, maize and potatoes. That increases our vulnerability,” Pharo added.

According to the panel at FOLU, the report is the first of its kind to assess the benefits of transforming global food systems as well as the cost of inaction.

Furthermore, the study found that the damage the modern food industry does to human health, development and the environment costs the world $12tn (£9.6tn) a year, which is equivalent to China’s GDP.

The document proposes a series of solutions, from encouraging more diverse diets to improve health and reduce dependency on specific crops, to giving more support to the types of farming that can restore forests, a key tool in fighting climate change.

In Costa Rica, for example, the government has reversed deforestation by eliminating cattle subsidies and introducing payments to farmers who manage their land sustainably. As a result, the amount of forest cover has risen from a quarter of the country’s land in 1983 to more than half today, according to the report.

The cost of the reforms it lays out are estimated to be up to $350bn (£281bn) a year, but that would create business opportunities worth up to $4.5tn (£3.6tn)  – a 15-fold return.

However, the study said these reforms could also free up 1.2 billion hectares of agricultural land for restoration, an integral part of efforts to curb climate change and halt biodiversity loss. The land equates to twice the size of the Amazon rainforest, which spans seven nations.

“What we’re saying is realistic if the reform agenda is implemented,” said Pharo, adding that under the proposed changes, consumers would actually get “slightly more affordable food”.

“The excuse that we cannot prioritise the environment at the same time because we’ve got to focus on development, on human welfare, is simply false. We can deliver both.”

There have been several studies investigating the impact of current food production methods, particularly the effect it has on climate change. For example, a report published by the United Nations (UN) in August said that humans need to change what they eat and alter practices in order to slow the pace of climate change.

Meanwhile, many robots are being developed to help in the process of agriculture and food production. Cambridge University researchers, for example, have developed a lettuce-picking robot, which the team hopes will demonstrate how robotics will take an increasingly prominent role in agriculture in the future.

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