OFC21: Call to fix ‘broken’ food system with fairer prices

A focus on productivity growth and cheap food are no longer tenable in the face of climate change, biodiversity loss and poor diets, the UK’s global food security champion has warned.

Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds and research director at the Chatham House think-tank, explored some of the future directions for UK agriculture and the supply chain as he delivered the Science Lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday (7 January).

He said the challenge facing agriculture was how to feed a growing population while at the same time minimising ill health and NHS healthcare costs associated with food production while also wasting as little food as possible. 

See also: Defra paves the way for more agroforestry in England

Prof Benton said there was increased recognition from scientists and academics that the food system must change – and a “business as usual” approach was unsustainable.

“We need greater recognition of the values associated with food. Stop just thinking about driving prices down,” he told delegates online.

Less is more

Farmers must be rewarded for “less but better” production of food that has more nutritional value, produced more sustainably.

Higher farmgate prices would incentivise farmers “to do things in a different way” and produce healthier food through a more diversified agriculture.

In the UK, Prof Benton said there were more opportunities for “circular agriculture”, rather than one side of the country producing livestock and the other producing grains.

A more diverse agriculture would provide more multi-functional landscapes that could offer space for biodiversity and opportunities for rural employment.

It would also free up space to plant more trees and regenerative farming practices could build more resilient landscapes, he said.

“It’s not just about growing the same things in a slightly different way, it’s about a system redesign,” he added.

Regional or global markets

Prof Benton said questions remained over whether markets would become more regionalised or remain global in the post-Brexit, post-Covid era.

A move towards more diversified and regionalised food systems would see farmers “lose agricultural efficiency, but we would gain systemic efficiency”.

Incentivising very low-waste systems might see more whole foods cooked at home rather than added-value, ultra-processed foods, said Prof Benton.

But he said building resilience in food and farming systems would cost money, and more research was needed on farming systems and local contexts.

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