Small scale trials of potential solutions to farmland bird decline before use in larger scale research trials or agri-environment scheme options, RSPB Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire

Food security

Food security is defined as 'when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.' Clearly, we're currently a long way from this goal.

The problem

Globally, enough food is produced to feed everyone, yet around 1 in 8 people are chronically undernourished, 2 billion people suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies and 500 million are obese.

So what is wrong with our food system?

As the global population increases, the changing climate makes supplies less predictable and as people become wealthier these problems of shortage and overconsumption are likely to become more acute. 

How then can we better meet the needs of the global population for safe, healthy food whilst at the same time safeguarding our biodiversity and the natural resources on which we depend? We are already using most of the available agricultural land and clearance of remaining areas of tropical forest would have catastrophic effects on biodiversity and local climate. 

This challenge has provoked some in the UK and Europe to demand an immediate and sustained boost in agricultural production. Yet it is clear there is enough food currently produced to feed more than the current global population. Indeed it is estimated that we currently waste up to 50 per cent of the food which is produced. 

RSPB Lake Vyrnwy Nature Reserve, Llanwddyn, Oswestry, Shropshire, Wales.

What is food security?

Food security is about much more than the amount of food produced.

It concerns the affordability of food, access to food (eg transport links and safe and secure markets) and dietary choices. 

Problems of over-consumption coupled with lack of physical exercise are resulting in non-communicable diseases which, in addition to its social cost, represents an enormous economic burden (no assessment exists but the cumulative cost of all, for which overweight and obesity are leading risk factors, were estimated to be about US$1.4 trillion in 2010).  

Increasing total food production is therefore not the immediate priority to improve the global food security situation - the issues to address are political, social and economic.

RSPB staff at work at The Lodge, headquarters. Staff hard at work in the canteen, Sandy, Bedfordshire, England

At what cost?

Countries in the European Union have seen at close quarters the damage which agriculture focused on maximising production can bring.

For many years, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) encouraged the over-production of many commodities (which led to the infamous wine lakes and grain mountains of the mid 1980s).

This approach failed to alleviate global hunger (in fact it actually served to undermine agricultural production in developing countries) and brought with it significant environmental problems: biodiversity has declined markedly in recent decades. 

In the UK, of the 1,064 farmland species for which we have trends, 60 per cent have decreased and 34 per cent have decreased strongly,* while problems connected with soil and water quality have increased significantly.

* State of Nature report 2013

Henry Johnston's wild bird cover crop in Armagh, Northern Ireland

The UK's role

Although food production will need to increase to feed a growing global population in the long term, this must not be pursued at the expense of the environment.

In the EU, continuing with a business-as-usual scenario of boosting yields through energy and  input intensive farming, which depletes and pollutes precious water resources, degrades soil quality and drives species to extinction is not a solution. In fact it will undermine our capacity to produce food in the long term.

The UK must continue to be an important food producer both to secure local supplies and to play a role as part of a stable global economy. However, it must be recognised that the scope for impacts on a global scale are modest - we have only 0.34 per cent of the world's agricultural land and produce less than 1 per cent of the world's cereals. Our role should be as a world leader in sustainable production practices, leading the way in demonstrating best practice for the future.

A complex issue

Food security is a complex and crosscutting issue and there are no easy answers or solutions. Changes in public behaviour could make an important difference – from changing what types of food we eat through to wasting less, but of paramount importance is to protect our agricultural resource base of soil, water and biodiversity.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) clearly demonstrates, in both economic and human terms, why we cannot afford to delay action to safeguard the ecosystems which underpin our agricultural system. The RSPB believe our moral duty is to put environmental sustainability at the heart of farming and address consumption and waste issues, in order to ensure we can produce adequate food supplies now and in the future and to help the developing world to do the same. 

Arable farmland, cereal crop, Saffron Walden, Essex.

Sustainable intensification

The 2011 Foresight report** examined the challenge of achieving global sustainability in food and farming systems.

It advocates sustainable intensification, defining sustainability 'as the use of resources at rates which do not exceed the capacity of the earth to replace them, and identifying the need to halt soil degradation and biodiversity loss, and prevent pollutants accumulating in the environment.'

Although the term has been adopted by a broad range of stakeholders, it remains contentious as it often interpreted as encouraging short term fixes without tackling the underlying problems with the current system. In practice, sustainable intensification will mean different things in different farming sectors and in different geographical areas. 

In some sectors or regions, intensification of agriculture may not represent a sustainable route. Production will in fact need to decrease in some situations to ensure it does not damage the environment and resources are safeguarded for the future. Intensification is therefore not a sustainable option in all situations.

Increasing yields may be able to play a role in helping us safeguard important biodiversity rich areas where there is a lack of best practice being applied and yields are considerably below their potential. However, in order to do this it must be implemented with full regard to the complex aspects of achieving sustainability. 

There is no one model of sustainable farming. Organic and conventional (and other approaches and systems) have a part to play in moving us to a more sustainable farming future.

** The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability (2011) Government for Science London