Focus on consumption at Global Food Security Conference

April 5, 2024

The fifth Global Food Security Conference takes place in Leuven on 9 April. During this conference, around 500 researchers from 65 countries will discuss food security and food systems. Martin van Ittersum, professor of Plant Production Systems at WUR, is co-organiser of this conference and will deliver the opening speech. He foresees a focus on food consumption.

At the first conferences in the past ten years, there was still a relatively strong focus on food production, says Van Ittersum. Researchers gave presentations on how farmers could increase their yields in a sustainable way. Over the past few years, however, attention has shifted from production to consumption. While part of the global population faces food shortages and malnutrition, other people overeat and/or have a much too limited diet and suffer from obesity. In both cases, researchers are looking for ways to improve food quality and health while protecting the environment. It is not only consumption and food supply that play a role here, but also production, trade and legislation. For that reason, researchers are increasingly talking about food systems. ‘'We may need to change the name of the conference to Global Food Systems Conference.'


At the conference, Van Ittersum will discuss major trends in food security and food systems in Africa and Europe. ‘Due to population growth and increasing demand, most African countries need higher yields on existing acreage. That means intensification. My research group is studying how farmers can sustainably increase production on current acreage. That research shows how better seeds, more fertilisers or better soil management can contribute, for example. The big question is: how much more production capacity do African farmers have? Can Africa feed itself? Using an update of previous research, Van Ittersum sets out to paint a less pessimistic picture of the food situation in sub-Saharan Africa.


In Europe, entirely different issues are at play. Intensive food systems are running up against environmental limits and need to extensify, while demand for food in Europe is falling and needs to change due to demographics and health. Van Ittersum sees three challenges in Europe. Firstly, the diet of Europeans needs to change, with less animal-based and more plant-based food. Secondly, there are good opportunities for closing cycles by handling imports and exports of food and animal fodder differently. And the third task is reducing residual flows and food waste.


Of these three challenges, change in diet has the most impact. This is according to research by WUR PhD candidate Ben van Selm, says the professor. 'If we halve our meat consumption and adopt a more plant-based diet, nitrogen and greenhouse gas emissions would fall by tens of percent and we would need significantly less land for our food production.' There are advantages and disadvantages to such a transition, says Van Ittersum. 'In the short term, this means a decline in agricultural incomes and employment, but in the longer term it will reduce environmental and health costs.'

Consumer behaviour

The big question here is: how do you steer consumer behaviour towards a healthy and sustainable diet? 'Are we going to influence eating behaviour through prices, so levies and premiums, through awareness or through legislation and regulations? This question is particularly relevant in Europe. In countries outside Europe, there are not yet many explicit policies to guide consumption behaviour.' This issue will certainly be addressed on the fourth day of the conference, during the science-policy day. Scientists, policy makers and industry will then discuss how to guide consumption behaviour.