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Food and fuel production needs to change say experts at IBEC 2014

Food and fuel production needs to change say experts at IBEC 2014 - 13 March 2014. iStock

The world will need to make dramatic changes in food and energy production to meet the needs of a growing global population, according to experts.

Professor Tim Benton. Credit: University of Leeds
Professor Tim Benton, UK Global Food Security Champion. Image: University of Leeds

Pressure for land to feed and fuel a rapidly growing world population in the face of climate change will need a range of approaches to cope, according to Professor Tim Benton, the UK Global Food Security Champion and Dr Jeremy Woods, lecturer in bioenergy at Imperial College London.

The pair discussed the issue of global land-use competition on Wednesday at the International Bioenergy Conference 2014 in Manchester, organised by the UK Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board.

Professor Benton described how we were "currently on course for a world that is going to be unimaginably different by the end of the century".

A growing global population exceeding 9Bn by 2050, a larger middle class worldwide consuming more and different food, globalisation of food trade and climate change will all affect food and biofuel production he said, placing more pressure on land.

Dr Woods said: "It's [food insecurity] a very serious question and not a nice thing at all, and it's something humanity needs to look deeply into its conscience about."

Dr Woods said he believed there were four options to increase productivity of biomass, either for food, fuel or both. These were; increasing land area used to grow crops, increasing yields, exploiting 'waste' and increasing the efficiency and resilience of systems.

But in reality he said, the solution would need to be a combination of all four.

In recent years biofuel crops have often been considered as being in competition with food crops for land. However some new biofuels can be produced using non-edible parts of food plants, meaning that current waste products could be exploited to make fuels.

Dr Woods said he believed this approach could be important to help improve efficiency and build resilience into production. He said: "I think there is a role for bioenergy trying to modulate volatility in the food system. We need to take it one step at a time and think about how the food supply systems can be supported by bioenergy in practice."

He made a plea that biofuel crops not be simply "boxed into marginal land".

Professor Benton argued that he would like to see global diets change, to reduce pressure on land used for food production. By cutting down on food waste and reducing consumption of excess calories large amounts of land could in effect, be freed up for other uses, such as biofuels, he said, as well as populations becoming healthier.

"We want everything, but actually the world can't provide it all," he said. "We need to produce food and energy within local and planetary boundaries or it isn't sustainable."

Both agreed that the exact effects of climate change and other factors was hard to predict, but that business as usual was not going to be an option.

"We don't know what the future is," said Prof Benton. "All we know is that it's not going to be the same as the past and it's probably going to be more volatile."

ENDS