Scientists discussed food security for UN-summit in 2021

Published on
December 9, 2020

Wageningen scientists exchanged information with international colleagues on the latest developments in food security from 7 to 9 December. Is there sufficient food, does everyone have access to it, what is the impact of the corona pandemic, and what will be the quality of food in 2030? This new information will help us provide the UN Global Food Summit in 2021 with up-to-date knowledge, insights and principles.

The 4th Global Food Security conference aimed to cover the entire domain of food security. Some 900 scientists from dozens of countries gathered online to discuss and exchange presentations on the latest developments in issues such as availability, access, use and stability of food. Topics such as responsible consumption, new technology and the use of big data towards food security were also covered.

UN Global Food Summit 2021

An important goal of the conference was to assist the UN Global Food Summit, planned by the United Nations to take place in New York in 2021, in achieving the so-called Sustainable Development Goals related to food, poverty and environment. The last hurdles are to be conquered by 2030. The challenges each continent faces differ enormously.

Wageningen scientist, and co-organiser on behalf of Wageningen University & Research, Martin van Ittersum, discussed Europe’s main challenge. ‘In particular in regions such as North-west Europe there is still much to do to transform mainstream farming into a cleaner, more circular farming system. This must come with a diet with a new balance of animal and plant-based components.’ Nutrient cycles, particularly of nitrogen and phosphate, will play a major role. He also discussed the importance of a proper prioritisation of re-using waste streams to maintain the soil, as fertilisers or animal feed, or to sequester carbon in the soil.

Cows and pigs in circular agriculture

Wageningen researcher Hannah van Zanten’s contribution fitted in perfectly. She studied what animals are best suited to what diets and waste streams (by-products) in circular agriculture. Animal species differ significantly in the extent to which they can absorb different by-products. Through their digestive system loaded with micro-organisms, cows are able to process fibres into valuable nutrients. Thus, they are uniquely suited to convert and upgrade grass and straw into milk. Pigs, on the other hand, can absorb wet by-products such as food-residues from retail and catering. ‘But, mind you’, the researcher warns: ‘Cows and pigs yield red meat, while white meat is advised as being healthier. So, it takes some searching to find a healthy diet in a circular food system.’

Food security for Africa

Other contributions by Wageningen focused on the fundamental question of how Africa, the sub-Saharan region in particular, can achieve food security in the coming decades. In this period, the demand for food is expected to triple due to population growth and changes in diet. What governance tools and development trajectories fit in with the vast diversity and low-productive small-scale agriculture in this part of the world? From banana systems in Uganda to cotton cultivation in Mali and cocoa production in Ghana. Maja Slingerland works on the development of better management in cocoa systems to achieve higher production. ‘Examples include adding shade trees to protect the cocoa from the effects of climate change such as drought’, she states. ‘The trees also provide additional carbon storage and much needed extra income, for example, if fruit trees are planted.’

Mercy Mwambi, who recently obtained her PhD in Wageningen, concludes that in the Kenyan dairy chain, producer organisations such as cooperatives, form an essential link between the many small-scale farmers and the consumer. Research shows that farmers who are united in a dairy cooperative, pay more attention to the food safety of their milk, than farmers who are not a member. Moreover, membership of a cooperative has a positive effect on the empowerment of women in the farming business.

The 4th edition of the Global Food Security congress was to take place in Montpellier, organised by local institutes in collaboration with Wageningen University & Research and Elsevier. Due to Covid-19, the event took place online. The first edition of this event was organised by Wageningen in 2013Scientists discussed food security for UN-summit in 2021