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Jesus College Conference on Food, Farming and Climate Change

On 30 January 2020, this Conference brought together experts from a diverse set of backgrounds to explore the future of our food system, reflecting on food, farming and climate change. We welcomed 40 participants from academia, government, civil society, industry, finance, law, and the media in this one-day roundtable discussion.

The day began with a birdseye view of the challenge now and in the future of feeding the world’s rapidly rising population and its impacts on the planet’s carbon emissions. According to UN projections, the world’s population is set to increase to 9.8 billion by 2050 with the largest growth expected in urban centres in developing countries. Amongst these, India, Nigeria and Pakistan, stood out as places experiencing growth that will continue in coming decades; a point previously discussed in the Jesus College Conferences on Global Mobility and on Homes, Housing and Urbanisation. Our experts noted that we are experiencing other demographic changes as many countries have a population that is getting older, with the 65-and-over age group seeing the largest growth. The experts raised many points discussed at length in the Conference on Ageing Well, bringing us back to what this means for both the planet and for our food systems across the next century.

The experts pointed to the fact that these factors pose significant challenges both here in Britain and globally, something which the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has reported on previously. First, increasing numbers of younger people are moving to urban centres. A larger urban population means there are fewer people working farms, while such farms are also often too labour intensive for an ageing population to manage. While we have industrialised meat and dairy production extensively, as well as certain basic crops like wheat, automation is more challenging with fruit and vegetables. People are still needed for labour-intensive tasks like harvesting. Highly industrial agriculture, while it might be better able to cope with a migrating and ageing population, has serious impacts on the environment.

Additionally, the industrialisation of agriculture does not always work as anticipated. Take, for example, the proud chilli farmers of New Mexico who simply cannot find enough people to farm their crop while engineers struggle to design a machine that can pick the stubborn fruits without damaging the delicate plant. Technology has proved unsuccessful for harvesting this crop. Our experts were careful to suggest that technology, while an important focus throughout the day, could not provide all the answers and solutions we need.

Indeed, they noted that even if we were able to automate most of our farming and increase food production to a level necessary to feed the growing population, rising CO2 levels pose other nutritional and environmental problems. Research has shown that increases in CO2 have a negative impact on the nutritional value of the plants that we eat, increasing their sugar levels, and reducing the level of some vitamins and minerals. The effects of climate change may be not only on what we can produce but also on the quality of the macronutrients and micronutrients of the foods themselves.

Our experts also noted that our current food system is itself in part responsible for climate change. Food accounts for over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, while meat consumption accounts for well over half of greenhouse gas emissions in an average diet. Red meat consumption is particularly intensive due to a number of factors including associated land use. It is estimated that agriculture alone could account for the majority of the emissions budget set for limiting global warming below 2 degrees.

Despite these concerns and climate change being increasingly present in the public conscience, shifting attitudes remains an uphill battle.  A recent YouGov-Intellectual Forum poll done for this Conference showed that nearly a third of respondents listed the environment as one of the top three issues facing the country. However, most people continue to eat meat several times a week, or more, with barely 10 per cent of Britons eating less meat, despite large public campaigns that suggest reducing meat consumption is one of the best ways individuals can contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases.

The British public also seems to be unwilling to put its money where its mouth is, with only about 35 per cent saying that the government should increase taxes to help tackle climate change. This is well below the willingness to pay more in tax to support the NHS, policing and education.

It is with these challenges, numbers, and urgency that our experts launched into the four main session discussions. Our speakers wondered who takes the biggest burden of responsibility for reducing the carbon footprint: the farmers, the suppliers, the supermarkets or the consumers?  Very quickly there was disagreement over which part of the supply chain needed to make the most significant changes showing the vast, multidisciplinary approaches necessary for tackling the problem.

Informing the Consumer or Changing the Supply Chain?

Our experts started with exploring the consumer and their choices as the dominant paradigm for responding to climate change. Our experts agreed that reducing meat consumption in the average diet is one of the biggest ways that individuals can reduce their carbon footprint. However, our recent survey with YouGov showed that while the British public overwhelmingly accepts climate change science, a similar majority are still unwilling to adapt to a different diet.

Experts from across a number of fields indicated that one of the biggest hurdles seemed to be informing the consumer. Many argued that the total on the bottom of the grocery receipt was the most significant factor in consumer choices for many while other considerations — like taste or nutritional value — were often secondary.  It was noted, though, that this is somewhat generational. A Neilsen poll found, for instance, that while 66 per cent of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable goods, 73 per cent of Millennials are. However, our experts noted a major hurdle was how to signal sustainable goods to consumers in an understandable way in the shopping experience.

One expert pointed out that education was very important, and making it easy for people to find out the climate effects of food was crucial. There are now free printable playing cards to help understand various aspects of food like miles, carbon, and water use. However, other experts were quick to suggest that focusing on consumers and proposing labels or icons, while important to helping people sustainability and food, placed the responsibility on the consumer, rather than corporations or society. One expert even argued that they continue to place the seemingly insurmountable task of climate change as an individual issue, making the individual responsible for poor decision making that changes the climate, when the issue was bigger and transnational in nature.

Practical issues were also discussed. One of our experts cited a short-lived labelling initiative from Tesco. The national retailer had placed carbon footprint labels on all their milk cartons. But just three years later they dropped the labelling, blaming the amount of work involved and other retailers not following suit. It was also pointed out that so many labels and icons are now on cartons that it is hard for the consumer to quickly understand what they all mean and to make real choices.

Furthermore, it was pointed out that not all soybeans are the same in terms of carbon, and therefore putting one broad label wasn’t necessarily giving the correct information, while providing accurate information for every different product would involve extensive data collection and processing. Additionally, the frequent change of suppliers for the fruit and vegetables on our supermarket shelves means that, depending on farming practice and distance travelled, the carbon footprint of individual products could vary even week to week.

Our experts agreed that any approach to labelling had to be carefully thought as most consumers are already overwhelmed by information and certification labelling. One of our experts argued that some of the digital infrastructures in place may be a better solution than placing labels in packaging. For example, as more and more supermarkets implement scanning handsets, could retailers place carbon footprint information on the scanner’s interface? Could the information be built into the app infrastructure both in-store and online shopping? 

One of our speakers said that the entire discussion ran on the assumption that labelling is about the consumer where in fact, it could just as easily force the producer to reconsider their product. For example, the traffic light labelling system had driven many producers to reformulate their recipes because they did not want a red indicator on their packaging. But other experts were sceptical, suggesting such a system could incentivize producers to cheat, similarly to the way that car manufacturers cheated emissions tests. It is also difficult for supermarkets and other suppliers to determine the exact footprint of any one crop as much of the data is held by producers. Another expert raised concerns that again this solution placed responsibility with individuals, obscuring the larger social change needed to meaningfully attend to the climate crisis.

However, the experts were in agreement that technology does have a role. More robust data-sharing between producers and suppliers about crop yields, demand, weather patterns and other factors determining supply could help solve the huge problem of food waste. As much as 30 per cent of all food produced is lost along the food chain or wasted.

It’s also unfair to place all the onus on the producers and suppliers. As consumers grow more and more detached from the processes of food production, our demand is creating problems we do not want.  The experts talked about the serious issue of the cosmetic standards of food, noting that consumers have become accustomed to evenly sized and perfect-looking produce. For example, potatoes used to come with mud on them, which helped mask some of their imperfections and people were less concerned with the size and shape, but not washing and packaging present a certain aesthetic that consumers have come to expect. More than 50 million tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables are being discarded across Europe every year for aesthetic reasons.

Companies like OddBox are trying to tackle the problem at the source by collecting surplus food that was not good enough for directly from farms and selling it to the consumer in regularly delivered boxes, using the misshapen or otherwise unwanted produce as a marketing ploy. One of our speakers suggested that national supermarket chains are also using “bags of misshapen carrots” and “wonky" boxes as a marketing gimmick, but changing perception is necessary.

Our experts agreed that each of these proposed solutions, and subsequent questions, were just a tiny part of a much larger picture. Unless we think about the whole system, change is unlikely to be effective. One expert suggested that it’s common for people to think purely about how consumers might change and that a lot of the messaging around actions to help combat climate change is highly individualistic. One expert said that, in a sense, this is blaming the victim. Should we then instead focus on disruptive innovations that could change the system?

However, as one expert pointed out, “systems” is a fuzzy term. They argued that systems consist of elements and flows and that all these things are controversial and up for debate. There is a danger zone in thinking about problems as “systems,” because systems have scales — local, national,  global. At which scale should we start?

Much of the discussion revolved around consumers in the UK and other advanced economies. There is justification for this; as one expert asked, “If we can’t make it work in the UK where can we make it work globally?” According to the World Health Organisation, there is a strong positive relationship between the level of income and the consumption of animal protein. This could indicate that, even if we lowered our own meat and dairy consumption, it would find a market elsewhere in developing economies. Our experts asked: if the consumers who are going to move the bar are in places like Africa and India, what are the tech developments that will help us?

What can we learn from other domains like public health about regulation and behaviour change?

Our experts agreed that while consumer demand is a significant driver in what is produced and delivered to supermarket shelves, placing the onus entirely on consumers is reductive, and producers and suppliers have a significant part to play in consumer choice and habits. Our experts also agreed that, in terms of public health, the food that we want people to consume less of are often also the foods that have the biggest carbon footprint. One of our experts said that from a public health perspective, our main aim is to offer affordable access to healthy food for everybody. Some studies have shown that the detrimental health impact of poor diet is comparable to that of smoking. How can we build environments to get people to eat better while also improving planetary health?

Our expert also argued that our understanding of what drives bad dietary choices is poor. It isn’t a lack of knowledge — most people know they should be eating more fruit, vegetables and grains — but rather about power and the architecture of our food systems. Over 10 per cent of people in Britain were living in households where adults reported food insecurity. The cheapest foods are also the lowest quality. Many factors that are seemingly out of consumers’ control affect their eating habits. For example, people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds have more takeaways situated near them. More than this, product placement often influences food choices, with highly packaged and processed foods having prominence.

Taking from public health’s lessons, though, it was noted that regulatory change can often have significant impacts on diet and product ingredients. Our experts asked, what are some regulatory changes that would incentivise producers and suppliers to make changes that are beneficial to public health, and by extension, planetary health?

Our speakers discussed the case of Chile, where the government implemented a slew of regulatory measures such as restrictions on cartoon characters on the packaging of cereals, large octagons like stop signals and advertising restrictions on nutritionally deficient foods and a ban on foods high in sugar, fat and salt in schools.  Another noted that taxation impacted on product formulation, as producers sought to avoid price increases by taxation by reformulating or changing the ingredients. It was again acknowledged that consumers are price sensitive and industry knows this, and therefore substantial changes to both behaviour and products can be instigated through appropriate regulation.

One of our experts said that we must bring industry to the table when discussing any potential regulatory changes. They pointed out that one of the things that happened in Chile was that regulators worked with companies and put in incentives with them — for example, if you reduce your target, we’ll remove the stamp. Involving them in the dialogue and being clear on who’s talking can have a positive impact as the right legislation is welcomed by industry.

Another of our speakers countered this example, however, and said that of the issues with the Chile example is that it was robustly challenged as multinational companies went to court over the law. This expert suggested that public-private partnerships can derail potential advances around diet where industry seeks to limit or curtail meaningful advances, especially in developing or middle-income settings, as has been seen in the past with China and India. A lot of that work is around diverting the message and creating confusion. How do we offset that behaviour? How do we educate an increasing population of people who mistrust experts and mistrust their own government?  How do we ensure the public can have the information they need when all the information architecture is designed to muddy the waters so that we don’t understand?

Much of this discussion, for example, happens in the meat sphere where, although people accept that livestock and animal protein production is environmentally detrimental, they still raise other issues: “Is British meat that bad? Is locally produced meat that bad?”. One of our experts passionately argued that while there are subtleties, often bad actors are using the nuance to create confusion. The need for nuance should not an excuse to muddy the waters.

Inherent complexity is deftly used by multinational food corporations to their own advantage, one of our speakers argued. Many corporations are exerting influence by deploying funds for nutritional research and manipulating nutritional science communications to benefit their bottom line. For example, our expert said, there are food policy and communications charities that are intentionally set up to not have to report their funding source. If a journalist, researcher or individual Googled the organisation, there would be virtually no way to know that they are funded by multinational corporations. Researchers don’t know these details until they’re already in bed with them with a contract and a non-disclosure agreement. Our expert was disturbed by the ignorance of news and current affairs editors who present these charities as objective commentators. For example, the New York Times recently published a story suggesting that consumers have been misled and that the ill-effects of consumption of red meat are overblown. Just five days later, a follow-up story showed that the lead researcher had failed to disclose past research ties to industry.

The architecture of research funding is a real problem. One of our speakers said that these networks of corporations, charities and individuals make them think of industry "best" practice and sharing through "partnerships" which are commonly thought of as positive. the experts asked us to consider that there are, for example, best practices shared by the fossil fuel industry which may not have a positive impact on the public and climate. Rather partnerships may be driving forward a profit for share-holders or focusing on making gains in a single domain like water pollution, but that have a perverse impact on the climate in other domains like carbon output.

Another expert countered that researchers sometimes feel like they can have a broader impact if they work closely with a large corporation. Our speaker pointed out that they have the influence to spread new tool around the world in different food chains. The corporations have much more influence they’re able to do more with it and to reduce the real-world carbon footprint. Given that they are an important player – there is a delicate balance in engaging people that can make a difference.

Our experts agreed that there is a difference between who’s trusted and who’s listened to. There is a richer tapestry of understanding of who influences what people are buying. Our experts also asked, are our political and social systems able to deal with these problems? Would politicians now be able to deal with smoking the way they did in the 70s?

One of our speakers questioned why the sugar reduction strategy in the UK isn’t working. There is a good existing model for industry and academia where industry has gradually been reducing the salt content on bread and academia has monitored the reduction by a national survey in England. Why can we take salt out of food, they questioned, but not sugar?

Corporations have also had an impact on how and what food we produce. Our experts argued that the food system encourages a very simplistic monoculture system of annual crops and cash crops. The former in particular often have fewer nutrients than the nutrient-dense perennial plants that we have evolved. In order to continue to feed a growing population, we have focused our research money into annual plants. Our expert said that important long term agricultural research never gets funded because it is complicated.

One of our speakers gave the example of the largest sugar producer in Brazil, who wondered why sugar plantations were becoming biologically dead. His son was given land to experiment on, but it took 10 years – to develop a plantation that was immensely diverse in terms of animal and insect life, and diverse in varieties of sugar.

There are also significant public health questions about what happens if we do find alternative ways to produce meat and dairy products. In the media, there has been much buzz about meat alternatives and cultured lab meat, but there are a lot of ethical issues to iron out. If one of the public health improvement strategies revolves around reducing meat consumption then the technologies that make livestock rearing more efficient and lower the cost of meat wouldn’t necessarily be a positive change. Would these increases in production also mean that we were pushing bad products on the developing world, where the repercussions on health and climate change would be exacerbated by the fundamental changes to diet? This could impact the public health systems of places that already struggle to provide for the population.

Can we leverage technology for more sustainable practices?

Our experts agreed throughout the conference that a disproportionate amount of land is used for raising livestock. If we were able to free up that land, it would allow us to step off the express train to ever-increasing intensification, they argued. But what do we do about that demand? Do we leave it alone, and constantly feed it? This approach would require technological changes that would help mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.

Do we change the demand through dietary change and waste reduction? While this would have positive effects on the environment there is the potential for some negative, unintended consequences.

One of our speakers presented several examples of the way that climate change is already having at times a catastrophic impact on what we can grow, where we can grow it, and how we grow it.

For example, one of our most ubiquitous crops, wheat, is a temperate climate crop. The optimum mean temperature for wheat is 15 to 20 degrees, but a lot of places are getting way warmer than that already.  Our expert also pointed out that corn goes sterile after just one hour of 35 degrees. A single, hot blip while the corn crop is flowering can wipe out an entire harvest. Similarly, the recent Australian bushfires have had devastating impacts on some of the nation’s wine producers. It would take many at least seven years to return to comparable production levels — assuming seven years of optimum weather.

Over centuries crops have evolved to suit a rather stable climate, we have specifically bred them to do this. The lesson in this, our expert argued, is that we don’t have to wait for catastrophic temperature increase, even just erratic weather events are enough to disrupt crop cycles.

In northern climates, we are likely to see some impact on tree crops. Plums, pears, and apples, among others, all need winter cold, but we are losing chilling hours rapidly, our experts said. You can change the variety apple, say a French one, at some point but gradually apples will become less productive, so what happens if we plant a different crop, but it won’t start growing well for some years to come. Where will we get apples from, and how will we support farmers while they wait for their apples to become fully productive?  Additionally, the opportunities to grow crops in northern latitudes, but that benefit is massively outweighed by the losses in yields in tropical and subtropical areas which are already struggling.

Thanks to our intensive farming system and the ongoing issues of land degradation and desertification, one of our experts looked at what impact reforestation would have on land quality as well food supply — planting trees in an area the size of India could have a negative impact on our food supply.

Our experts discussed some serious issues around land use and ownership, as land ownership in the global south becomes increasingly unequal. Big agricultural companies own the land. In some cases, this means that smaller farmers using sustainable practices are unable to scale up. Conversely, some farmers have demonstration plots where they are able to experiment with different crops, but they get paid for them by big companies, which also cuts out smaller farmers that cannot afford to yield any of their land for experimental demonstration plots.

Negative climate change impacts are particularly problematic in Sub-Saharan Africa where women farmers are already seeing yields suffer. Much of their farms are rain-fed and less predictable rainfall, droughts and floods mean that they are finding that they’re unable to farm the land that their grandparents farmed. Water management has become a huge part of the search for solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa, but for meaningful behavioural change to happen, trust is key. The exchange of information and ideas relies on tapping into the networks and the farmers sharing information among each other. Our expert argued that in Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change is about adaptation because there it is already happening.

Our experts then debated the merits of several emerging and developing technologies which could have a major impact on how we farm. One solution discussed was hydroponic systems. One expert wondered how they could make farming more profitable and more efficient. One answer, they argued, are vertical aeroponic systems — a process of growing plants in vertical air or mist systems without the use of soil. The plants are able to extract the nutrients they need from the water, without any wastage in soil. Our expert argued that the systems produce export quality fruit and vegetables, offer predictable yield and a 30 per cent quicker growth with a 365-day a year guaranteed output using much less resource than traditional farming methods.  Questions arose over whether the aeroponic systems were a viable solution in the world’s growing megacities where air pollution may alter the quality or stunt the growth of plants using these systems.

Much of the discussion also centred on genetic modification and the relatively new gene-editing technologies, which are tainted with serious public mistrust despite the fact that they could play a key role in climate resilience, our experts said. Most agreed that GM has become a metaphor for everything people worry about in the food system. Gene editing has come leaps and bounds in the last five or so years. It is a technology that allows researchers to cut or “edit” certain parts of the plants DNA. It is believed that the technology could help produce plants that are resistant to pests without the use of dangerous pesticides, or, more importantly in a warming world, that are more resilient in increasing temperatures.

Gene-editing has entered a regulatory minefield, however. US regulators say that because the plants do not contain foreign DNA, they do not need the strict regulation and testing required of GMOs. The European Union’s regulators, however, disagree and just last year ruled to regulate gene-edited plants the same as GMO.

Our experts say that in the current political climate it will be difficult to use gene-edited crops and that some of the answers most likely lie in shifting public opinion first. We need to have these conversations, and not be afraid of it, one of our speakers said. Additionally, as countries like the US are not regulating these new gene technologies, the gene-editing changes which essentially mimics natural genetic mutations, will be undetectable and thus, argued our experts, it is ridiculous to say we can police it.

Our experts voiced that most of our discussion has been about complex, interconnected systems. Therefore, our problem isn’t a lack of innovation or new technology, but rather is one of organisation. Technological solutions must be viewed through the lens of these complex systems. One of our experts observed that we are formulating policy based on small data sets and that we want to avoid people having a monopoly on these technologies. They questioned: is there a way that we can design tech that can coordinate people and generate data that can be deployed for effective policy and systems-level changes?

Conclusions

Our experts agreed that we cannot extract the food system from its purpose. If we are going to tackle this growing problem in a robust, and systemic way, we have to remember that it isn’t detached from us. The food system exists because we need it to.

Many of these issues are still on the periphery as consumers are so divorced from the food system, and are resistant to change in their habits. For policymakers, this means it is particularly contentious. Consumers, farmers, producers, corporations, suppliers and policymakers must be able to have difficult conversations about changes at each level of the system, until then, one of our experts argued, we are just tinkering on the edges.

Our speakers also agreed that, ultimately, this discussion is about moral choices and the micro and macro impacts of our decisions, both as individuals and as a society. When we start depersonalising things, one of our experts said, that is a system failure which is ultimately a people failure.

Ultimately, there is a lot of low hanging fruit which can help immediately, especially in the developing world which is suffering not only from the climate change impact on crop yields but also the global inequality and demand for crops from rich countries. We produce far too much food and have a serious equitable distribution problem — 820 million people go to bed undernourished, but it’s not because we don’t grow enough good. This, they agreed, was a moral failure.

The urgency of the issue was at the forefront of our experts’ minds. We are moving toward a world where one-third of the year is incompatible with human life outdoors, and we are failing to hold a mirror up and ask if tomorrow has to include us.

One of our experts said that we’ve been captured by a solution bias, as the alternative is too horrifying to imagine: like in many other multifaceted and complex issues, food, farming and climate change is touched by unaccountable power. We have designed a world for optimising profits, and even the way that we are informed is subject to corporate capture. This happens in the context of a regulatory framework that we submit to, or impose. It is, therefore, up to us, to choose what is or isn’t acceptable. The idea that markets are going to do what the markets are going to do, leads us to a doomsday scenario. Big companies can afford the cost of deregulation and we must empower smaller stakeholders, including consumers, to have a say. 

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