Consumers have “never cared more and known less” about the food they eat, the Agricultural Science Association Conference 2023 has heard.

The conference is taking place today (Thursday, September 7) in Naas, Co. Kildare, at which global food systems expert Jack Bobo delivered the lead address.

Speaking to attendees, Bobo spoke about the gap in knowledge consumers have in relation to food production, particularly in the area of sustainability.

“It’s good that they care but it’s a problem that they don’t know enough about the food chain, because the things they ask for may not deliver the benefits they want.”

For that reason, Bobo said, food producers need to be involved in the conversation with consumers.

“We need to be part of the conversation so that the things the consumers ask you to produce, in the ways they ask you to produce them, allow you to deliver the benefits they actually want,” he said.

He added: “Science tells us want we can do, the public tells us what we should do. If the public doesn’t allow us to bring innovations to market, it doesn’t matter that you come up with great solutions.”

Bobo, the director of the Food Systems Institute at the University of Nottingham, drew attention to the economic impact of agriculture, but also the level of malnutrition and hunger in the world.

“In many ways there’s nothing we do that has a bigger, more negative impact, but there’s nothing more critical for our daily survival. The [environmental] footprint is as big, if not bigger, than we want it to be. But we’re going from 8 billion to 9.5 billion people by 2050. That’s an enormous challenge.”

“We need 50-60% more food by 2050, we need as much as 100% more protein, huge challenges, and we already have the environmental footprint from agriculture,” he told the ASA Conference.

He added: “We also have 800 million people who will go to bed hungry today. Absolutely unacceptable in the world we have today. As many as 9 million people die of hunger-related illnesses every year. That’s 25,000 people today, 1,000 people over the next hour, one person every 4 seconds.”

“Too many people don’t see those people in need and they forget how important the work farmers do is. How do we help people understand the these are people’s lives?” Bobo said.

He expressed some skepticism over the claim that the food production system is “broken”.

“If our food system is broken, when was it not broken? Was it better five years ago, 10 years, or 50 years ago? I don’t think so. About 10% of the people on the planet are going to go to bed hungry today. But if you go back 30 or 40 years, it would have been 20%, if you go back 60 years ago it would have been 30%.

“If you look at the number of children who are dying before the age of five, it’s dramatically lower than at any point in human history. Often people are beating up on agriculture for what it’s not doing, but they’re not talking about what it is doing. Things are wildly better,” Bobo said.

He added: “Things are good and getting better – but not fast enough.”

He also outlined the difference between local sustainability and global sustainability, and how consumers are more aware of the former than the latter.

“Consumers think in terms of local sustainability. For most consumers, if you use less fertiliser, less water, less pesticide, then you’re probably more sustainable. It’s probably true that you’ll have less of an impact on that piece of land, but you’ll produce less as well.”

“The problem is that the benefits of local sustainability are felt locally, but someone else has to make up the difference for the loss in yield, and that’s global. So the benefits are local but the impacts are global,” he added.

“With intensive agriculture you can see the nutrient runoff, you can see the erosion. The impacts are local, but the benefits are global. Someone somewhere else doesn’t have to make up the difference. And it’s very hard to see those benefits,” Bobo said.

The food system expert was also critical of the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy.

“If the EU were to achieve the goals laid out in the strategy, what would the result be? Well, according to the European Commission, it would lead to a 15% reduction in production in Europe. Which means you’ll import more food.

“The country that sends the most food to Europe is Brazil. I’m not sure it makes sense to export your environmental footprint to arguably the most biodiverse country in the world. We need to be thinking about who should be producing that food, where we should be producing it, and how we can do it better everyday,” he said.

According to Bobo, a system where importers of Brazilian food could be assured – through a certification system – that the food it imports is not linked to deforestation would not reduce deforestation in Brazil as the country’s population is large enough to absorb deforestation-linked products in its own domestic market.

“So everybody gets a certificate that says their food doesn’t have an impact on deforestation, and deforestation continues at exactly the same rate,” he said.

The published author went on to comment on innovations in agriculture that have allowed significant increases in food productivity over the last several decades while using the same amount of – or even less – resources.

He said: “If you look at improvements in productivity over the last 50 to 60 years, we produce dramatically more food in the world today than we did in 1960 on almost exactly the same…amount of acres.

Bobo added: “There are about 3.6 billion hectares of forestry on the planet, and what people forget is, without innovation, if we were farming today the way we were in 1960, we would need 1 billion additional hectares of land to produce the food we do now.

“That’s what agriculture has delivered. Yes, we see forests in Brazil cut down…but what we don’t see is the billion hectares of forests that only exist because of improvements in agriculture. Agriculture may be the single biggest driver of deforestation, but it’s the single biggest reason forests continue to exist,” he said.

“Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. Farmers have been on this journey for over 100 years… Things are continually getting better. Why do people think it’s going to help when people who don’t farm tell farmers how they should farm… ‘Should’ is annoying, ‘could’ is an opportunity,” Bobo told the conference.