Where does our food come from?

Last month I travelled across the county to Peterborough to help run the John Innes Centre stand at the East of England Agricultural Society’s Food and Farming day.

Food and Farming day provides an opportunity for school children to understand agriculture and food production. Organisations were there from all parts of the agricultural industry, right from us scientists at the research level, to farmers, to companies that make produce for supermarket shelves. This event serves a number of purposes, primarily to help young people understand where their food comes from, and encourage them to pursue careers in the agricultural industry.

The more I work at events such as this one, the more I realise how important it is to open up the conversation about food production. We now live in a culture of fast food and supermarkets, which means we don’t ever really have to think about how the food we eat actually gets there. Growing crops and rearing animals becomes a sort of abstract concept. We know it happens, but really it doesn’t seem to affect us. This disconnection between the farmer’s field and the supermarket shelf means that many children (and adults!) don’t know that rice is a plant, that sausages come from animal meat, or that bread is made from wheat.  However, as we become increasingly detached from our food, it is only becoming ever more important to really understand the food production system.

Food security is a bit of a buzz word with the scientists and politicians at the moment, and for good reason. The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and all those extra people need to be fed! However, the problem we have is that we already use around 40% of the earth’s land mass for agriculture, and the earth isn’t getting any bigger. In fact, we may have even less space for food production than we do now in 50 years’ time, because of course all those extra people will need somewhere to live, and schools to go to, and hospitals to be treated at.

An additional issue is that this extra food needs to be produced and distributed sustainably. Current agricultural practices are actually pretty bad for the environment. Pollution, pesticides, fertilizers and animal waste can often end up in our water supply, damaging delicate environments, or contributing to greenhouse gases. Animals over-grazing can ruin grasslands. Vast swathes of rainforest and other endangered habitats are being cut down every year to make room for agriculture. Food is transported thousands of miles producing yet more greenhouse gases and pollution.

Ultimately, we need to produce more food, from less land, whilst reducing our impact on the environment. Seems like a bit of an impossible equation!

There are many ideas about how we can increase our food production in a sustainable way. Just some of these ideas include: developing GM crops that contain additional nutrients or don’t need to be sprayed with pesticides, producing food locally to reduce carbon produced in transportation, improving infrastructure and food distribution systems, cutting down on food waste, and selecting for crop varieties that give higher yields per hectare or are able grow on more marginal land, reducing meat consumption.

To decide which of these solutions could be the most helpful, and then implement these changes, scientists, politicians, policy makers and the public need to work together. However, we can’t have a fully open discussion, or expect people to back agricultural and environmental policies, if they don’t understand where the food comes from in the first place. By holding more events such as the Food and Farming Day, and educating children about agriculture, the next generation can grow up to be part of the discussion, and maybe even become the scientists and policy makers of the future to help feed our growing population.

 All photos from @johninnescentre

By Amelia Frizell-Armitage, a second year PhD student in the lab of Christobal Uauy

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