As the global population soars, Caroline Jackson reports on how the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food aims to help meet the challenge of feeding ten billion mouths.

Food for ThoughtBy Caroline Jackson

Is it safe? Will there be enough of it? How to keep control on prices? Should we eat meat? These questions dominate the popular, noisy and increasingly urgent debate about food. While all of us are stakeholders, the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food is quite literally putting its money where our mouths are.

The Oxford Martin School was founded in 2005 thanks to billionaire philanthropist Dr James Martin and the largest individual donation in the University’s history. Its mission is to foster innovative approaches to the problems, dangers and opportunities of the near future and to translate its academic, policy-neutral forecasting into social capital. High on the agenda and spanning all four key areas of the School’s engagement — energy and environment, ethics and governance, health and medicine, and technology and society — is food.

Heading its Future of Food programme is Professor Charles Godfray, CBE, FRS, Hope Professor in the Department of Zoology. A population biologist interested in how the global food system will need to change and adapt to 21st-century challenges, he is an expert on food security.

He warns that the recent period of food price volatility augurs profound changes in the food system which are likely to mean significant price increases in the medium term. Population will grow (though at a decelerating rate) to a peak which he estimates will be nine to ten billion people in the second half of this century. Meanwhile the world’s consumers will be on average wealthier and will demand a richer diet — production of which will require more resources. The global population will increasingly be urban, which changes the way food is purchased and marketed — as well as amplifying the social and political consequences of high food prices.

Action is needed, urges Professor Godfray, on all aspects of the food system. On the supply side, he stresses there will be growing competition for land, energy and water. ‘Water is of particular concern as a number of major aquifers — for example, those in north-west India and the US’s Great Basin region — will be exhausted by 2025,’ he says. Although productivity continues to increase, the rate has been slowing down due to reduced investment in research and development.

Professor Godfray highlights efforts to pursue the ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture — producing more food with fewer negative effects on the environment. But that must be balanced on the demand side, he urges, by ‘the need to think carefully about the type of diets we consume in the rich world — their healthiness and sustainability — as well as to address the poverty that means nearly a billion people go to bed hungry each night’.

Under his direction, the Martin programme aims to provide a focal point for food system research via its website; to fund and coordinate original interdisciplinary research projects; and to bring together Oxford researchers with policy-makers, both in the UK and internationally. Last but not least, adds Professor Godfray, the programme aims to foster interest among the next generation of Oxford undergraduates and postgraduates.

The enormous challenge of sustainably, healthily and equitably feeding the growing global population is reflected in the breadth of engagement across the University. Relevant departmental centres of excellence include nutrition and obesity, food taxes, food and climate change, poverty and hunger, animal welfare, sensory perception of food, crop production research, and political economy and public health.

The Martin programme has brought Dr Tara Garnett to Oxford, and with her the Food Climate Research Network she established at the University of Surrey. The network shares data on the complex interactions between our food system and climate change, and brings experts together to exchange knowledge and ideas. In another Martin-assisted project, Professor Godfray is encouraged by the results of Professor Marian Dawkins’s research into the monitoring of broiler chickens. ‘It is possible simultaneously both to increase welfare and productivity,’ he says. The Plants for the 21st Century Programme is working to improve crop yields and resilience by studying traits such as root architecture and how plants may be bred to perform more efficiently in a warming climate.

As an issue of public concern, food has reached top table. Food security was one of the six biggest global problems shortlisted for this year’s inaugural Longitude Prize. Meanwhile chef Alain Ducasse has announced that his Paris restaurant will risk its three Michelin stars to go meat-free in recognition of the world’s finite resources and in pursuit of ‘naturalité’. The need for intervention into world food systems is acknowledged as never before. Research, co-operation and collaboration are the vital ingredients in Oxford’s pioneering contribution to this unpalatable problem.

All images by Mika Hiltunen under Creative Commons licence.