Global Food Security Conference

By Laura Pereira

From 29th September to 2nd October 2013, the first international conference on global food security took place in the Dutch countryside of Noordwijkerhout. Under the auspices of Elsevier and with the convening power of Ken Giller and David Tilman, the conference was set up to be an interdisciplinary platform for discussing the state of scientific research on food security. The depth and breadth of the topics covered is captured in the list of the parallel sessions that were run over the 3.5 days.

Parallel sessions:

  • Global and local analyses of food security
  • Enabling policies for local and global food security
  • Sustainable intensification of food production systems
  • Novel ways of feeding 9 billion
  • Learning from the past to understand the future
  • Land sparing, land sharing and trade-offs
  • Agricultural production as feedstock for renewables
  • Lost harvest and wasted food
  • Nutritional security
  • Labelling, certifying and striving for quality and sustainability of food production

Over and above the parallel sessions, the conference had a fantastic poster session and there was plenty of opportunity for viewing these and talking to the presenters. Oxford was well represented with posters by two students, Christopher Coghlan and Mary Ng’endo Kanui who are both in the Centre for the Environment.

A key outcome of the conference was not just to bring the scientific food security community together for the first time, but to use the discussions to feed into a synthesis report. Throughout the programme, the scientific organising committee as well as chairs were asked to summarise the key outcomes of their sessions for input into the final plenary session. Martin van Ittersum was tasked with presenting this synthesis in the final conference session. Referring to the elements of food security outlined in the World Food Summit’s 1996 definition of “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life,” he spoke of the important research findings on Availability that had come out of the conference, and in particular the concept of sustainable intensification in meeting the needs of 9 billion people on the planet.

Chris Barrett in his plenary presentation made the economic argument that it in order to meet global food security needs by 2050, there needs to be a big focus on managing supply because demand challenges are too uncertain because they require behaviour change. Whilst controversial, this led to some heated discussion amongst participants, and in particular referred to the politics of land sparing and sharing in the supply side of the food system. This linked to the importance of Access, not only in terms of price volatility, as food vies with fuel for agricultural land, but also how behaviour change in the Global North was required to mitigate negative effects on food security in the Global South. Last, but not least, the element of Utilisation became an important rallying point in many of the sessions where it was recognised that there has until now been very little collaboration between agricultural scientists and nutritionists over this element of utilisation- not just in terms of dietary requirements of macro and micro-nutrients, but also in terms of bio-availaibility.

The plenary session with Jessica Fanzo (winner of the Premio Daniel Carasso) and Tristam Stuart (author of Feeding the 5000) emphasised this important aspect of nutrition and diversity and also highlighted the problem of food waste across the food system and how we could change behaviour to start tackling this problem. A particular presentation on rearing insects on food waste for livestock feed rightly received a lot of attention in this area.

Over and above the three elements of Availability, Access and Utilisation, Martin also referred to environmental issues (especially climate change) and politics and governance as key issues that needed to be integrated into the research agenda around global food security. Indeed, in my opinion these were some of the key insights coming out of the conference- the need for transdisciplinary research that can start coming to grips with how to transform the global food system sustainably by drawing on research on governance, power and transformation within the context of environmental change. Communication between social and natural scientists should be a high priority, particularly for establishing a common language for food security research. An interesting anecdote on this subject occurred around the use of scenarios in one of the parallel sessions where it was realised that when the presenters had referred to scenarios, that they were using the same word in different ways.

For example, economists use scenarios to inform model parameters that project possible futures, but that policymakers usually take as predictions that require action. Natural/physical scientists tweak parameters in their models to create a set of possible future scenarios whereas social scientists sometimes use scenarios as visioning exercises to incorporate multiple stakeholders in a shared vision of the future and then work out a path of how to get there. Understanding these differences is vital for moving forward with an interdisciplinary agenda in global food security.


Some key questions and observations that I have going forward in this field have been stimulated by similar discussions that have come out of smaller meetings on food futures. There has been a definite recognition of the need to move out of disciplinary silos in order to meet the challenge that global food security sets for the scientific community. However, in order to do this, we need to go about finding new tools for doing such inter- and transdisciplinary research. Furthermore, what are the metrics that we are using to measure success in achieving food security across different geographical and institutional levels? A big gap was that of the ICT community considering the data needs required in addressing such a complex problem- how can we start to engage these different communities to come on board and help us to tackle this problem comprehensively, bearing in mind issues of social justice and equity?

The overall aim is to make this conference a bi-annual event, with the next most likely to take place in New York. Hopefully, as the research being done by the food security community evolves, over time these issues will be tackled, providing new insights as to how we can tackle this pressing global challenge.

Laura Pereira finished her PhD at Oxford University in 2012. She has just finished a post-doctoral position at the Harvard Kennedy School and is now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cape Town.

Map of the world by percentage of population suffering from undernourishment from Wikipedia, made by Lobizón, using Wikipedia's "map of the world" template, and information from the United Nations World Food Programme and the FAO "The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006" report.

Photo of conference centre from conference website; photo of Indian food seller by Malcolm Banfield; diagram of IMPACT model from IFPRI website.

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