Feeding the world: can we engineer away hunger?

Saturday 18 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Conservatory, Barbican Interrogating Megatrends

TV images from Ethiopia in the 1980s seemed to confirm the gloomy prognosis that many parts of the world faced mass starvation. Since then, humanity’s capacity to feed itself looked to be increasing well. China’s dramatic economic growth eradicated hunger for millions, much like the earlier Green Revolution in India. World population has gone up by 50 per cent, yet the proportion of people who are undernourished has fallen dramatically. But gloomy voices of modern Malthusianism are making a comeback, warning that disaster was merely postponed. 

A major worry for governments and policymakers remains how to feed a growing world population, which is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. Industrialised farming is accused of using inhumane practices, producing low-quality products, and blamed for all sorts of environmental problems. One recent book argued that we are heading towards ‘farmageddon’ through Western societies’ fixation on ecologically destructive farming methods. Another problem is climate change. Green campaigners warn that agriculture in general may become more prone to extreme weather conditions, like droughts and floods, if the planet warms up substantially.

On top of this, food campaigners and health authorities fear that a shift to more ‘Western-style’ diets in the developing world is causing a rapid rise in obesity and diabetes. Yet many proposed solutions seem less directed at how we might produce more food for hungry mouths in the developing world, and more at demanding restraint from greedy, wasteful gorgers in the developed world. Proposed measures to ‘encourage’ us to eat and waste less include punishing supermarkets and consumers for food wastage and suggestions that the forthcoming ‘internet of things’ will make it easier to share food and eat smaller, healthier portions.

But do such ‘eat less’ sentiments, or pessimistic fears about starvation in the future, understate the ability of humanity to improve current food-production methods and innovate new ones? GM foods have provoked much controversy, but even many veteran green activists now believe they could be valuable. With the launch of the world’s first lab-grown burger in London last year, and ideas around cultivating and cooking industrially farmed insects and algae as new foodstuffs, part of the solution may be to rethink what we understand as food. For others, the crucial innovations need to come in infrastructure and distribution, noting the enormous quantities of food that are wasted between field and fork (or chopstick), particularly in poorer countries.

So, can we feed the world in the future? Will the future of food require a radical overhaul of our contemporary diets or can technological and social advancements aim to provide (much) more of the same? Should we look forward to a future of healthy bug burgers edging out the Big Mac, or can innovation and food engineering deliver pleasurable diversity as well as sustenance? And what is the right balance between technological innovation and social development?

Watch the debate:

Amy Jackson
director, Oxtale Specialist Communications; author, Can we Learn to Love the Megadairy?

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Miguel Veiga-Pestana
vice president, Global Sustainability Strategy and External Advocacy, Unilever

Tim Worstall
journalist; senior fellow, Adam Smith Institute; author, 23 Things We Are Telling You About Capitalism

Jason Smith
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas

Produced by
Jason Smith associate fellow, Academy of Ideas
Recommended readings
Seeds of Doubt

An activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops.

Michael Specter, , 25 August 2014

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