Uncertainty on figures hampering food security efforts

Market vendor, India (Image: Reuters) Rising populations are expected to place an increasing strain on the global food system

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More than 600 scientists gathered in the Netherlands for a global food security conference, described as the first of its kind.

Organisers said science could help end uncertainty surrounding efforts to meet the food needs of future generations.

They added that, until now, there were many policy debates on food security but there was no scientific forum for researchers to share knowledge.

The next food security conference will be held in the US in 2015.

"A really key message from the conference for us is that we have got lots of estimates about needs of population growth etc, but at the moment we are so uncertain of the exact numbers - the uncertainty is really very high," said conference co-chairman Ken Giller, professor of plant production systems at Wageningen University.

"We talk about the current population being seven billion, moving to 9.2 billion in 2050 and the estimate is that we need to increase production 70% or more.

"But there are many different ways of addressing that. If we don't know what the problem is then we can't get started in addressing them."

Appetite for change

Prof Giller said there was "unprecedented interest" among the scientific community when details of the conference was first announced.

"We did anticipate about 250-300 people , but we actually ended up with more than 900 abstracts being submitted," he told BBC News.

"The conference was basically sold out - we had 600 people and that was all we could accommodate."

He explained that the conference was designed to create a forum where representatives from the different branches of science could come together and discuss and debate the issues of global food security.

"We pulled together a science committee with the real aim to make the conference broad and to include all the main disciplines," he said.

"We had people on the science committee from economics, nutrition and we had people dealing with food waste, which is a very important topical issue."

Grain market, India (Image: Reuters) The combination of poor harvests and rising demand has increased price volatility in global grain markets

Prof Giller said that current estimates suggested that 30-40% of the food produced was wasted and not eaten.

Other themes that were discussed at the conference included:

  • Nutritional security,
  • Sustainable intensification of food production systems,
  • Novel ways of feeding nine billion,
  • Agricultural production as feedstock for renewables.

The organisers hope that the outcomes from the four-day event in Noordwijkerhout, South Holland, will help focus the scientific world's contribution to the UN global policy system.

One of the UN's eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was to "eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" by 2015, which included the target of halving - between 1990 and 2015 - the proportion of people suffering from hunger.

Assessments suggest the target is "within reach". However, a 2013 report on the progress of the MDGs warned that one in eight people remained chronically undernourished.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has announced that he wants to build on the MDGs, replacing them with a suite of Sustainable Development Goals that will run from 2015-2030.

He said one of his priorities was to "adopt globally agreed goals for food and nutrition security, mobilise all key stakeholders to provide support to smallholder farmers and food processors and bolster the resilience of communities and nations experiencing periodic food crises".

Prof Giller said this presented a "wonderful opportunity for science to get directly engaged in policies and help advise governments".

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