Eating insects and feeding 10 billion with alumni at the Royal Society

Each year, the University of Sheffield hosts a sustainability panel discussion for its London alumni. First year Grantham Scholar Jonas Cromwell reports from this year’s event.

The evening of Thursday 1 December 2016 saw The Royal Society full to capacity and bustling with University of Sheffield alumni. I was very lucky to be able to attend the University’s annual London alumni panel debate and reception. The event featured some of Sheffield’s best and brightest, and offered a brilliant opportunity for the University to share its current research, direction and focus, including the Grantham Centre, with the alumni community. The task of interesting an audience from a range of industries and backgrounds was helped along by the complimentary wine and edible bugs buffet. (Never tried bugs before? Give it a go!)

The evening’s main focus was the panel discussion, ‘How we will feed a world of 10 billion?’ It has been estimated that by 2060 the global population will reach nearly 10 billion. This population will eat a more resource-intensive western diet, such as meat and dairy. Some experts believe that to feed the growing population we need to produce 50% more food to meet this demand. How will we achieve this?

To answer this question, the panel discussion centred on the challenges that we need to overcome, to improve sustainability and food security: the role of governments, industries and global communities in achieving these goals. Key issues of food waste, changing consumption habits and innovations in the agriculture system were at the heart of the discussion.

To this discuss these issues panel members were drawn from within and outside the university and from industry. They were:

  • Professor Guy Poppy, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Food Standard Agency, Professor of Ecology at the University of Southampton and a member of Grantham Centre’s Engagement Board
  • Daniel Vennard, Director at Better Buying Lab within the World Resources institute, and former Sustainability Director at Mars
  • Dr Megan Blake, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, Director of the MA course in Food Security and Food Justice, and a member of Sheffield Food Futures (SheFF)
  • Professor James Wildson: Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield, Director of Impact and Engagement in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Director of the Nexus Network.

The debate was chaired by Professor Marie Kinsey, joint head of the Department of Journalism Studies, Professor of Journalism Education and her department’s Director of Learning and Teaching.

The debate started with a question from myself as a Grantham Scholar: What is the most important single innovation in food production? Professor Poppy replied that there is no one single answer and that innovation should be holistic. The whole food production process should be looked at, not just the individual bullet points. Innovation can be achieved though, in cross-disciplinary research – something that is key to the Grantham Centre training programme.

For me, the panel discussion’s most striking moment arrived on the issue of food waste, with a question from the audience about whether waste hierarchy could be built into supermarket contracts to potentially to reduce food waste. The panel agreed that even though education and behaviour change have a role to play in reducing food waste, there is a need to tackle food losses in developing markets. To this end, supermarkets have a key role to play in reducing food losses and waste upstream in their supply chains. Professor Poppy touched on the issues of ‘use by’ dates and ‘best before’ dates, arguing that they are not needed for some produce, such as apples and bananas. It was also noted that technological approaches such as GM have the potential to reduce food waste in, for example, tomatoes.

Another important point came from Dr Blake, who is supervising my PhD project: “The global food system is not working appropriately and we need to change.” Indeed, if we are throwing away a third of all food produced globally, yet nearly 800 million people are under-nourished, there is food insecurity in many parts of the world, and food poverty rates are rising, we do need to look at the whole of the food production and distribution system.

Personally, the discussion was of great significance to me because of its connections to my own research project, ‘Food waste and food recovery within the global food supply chain’. The event helped me consider the wider applications of my research, and allowed me to meet and talk to a number of people from a range of backgrounds, who all shared a common interest and concern for these pressing issues.

Oh, and eating bugs was great. Could edible insects become the next dietary trend?