One of the reasons we count ourselves lucky is that in our line of work we have the opportunity to meet so many people who are passionate and engaged. Andrew Sharp is exemplary in these qualities. So when he offered to come to America and speak about sustainability and food security we counted ourselves lucky. We asked Keith Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS to learn a bit more about the subject of Andrew’s passion:
From Kent, known as the Garden of England, Andrew studied agriculture in the UK before moving to growing in California for JR Norton Company producing lots of lettuce in the Imperial and Salinas Valleys.
He returned home, voluntarily, and ran vegetable and fruit farms in Wales and in Kent.
From there he joined what is now the UK’s leading grocery retailer, Tesco, as a fruit technologist before spending 15 years at Marks & Spencer, one of the UK’s high-quality retailers, eventually looking after the technical aspects of fresh produce, flowers and plants.
He has spent the last seven years as group technical director of Fresca, one of the largest importers and suppliers of fruit, salads and vegetables to UK retailers.
No stranger States-side, he was on the PMA board, reaching the heights of vice chairman, first getting involved the last time Fresh Summit was in NOLA… (before it was called NOLA) where he presented a paper on Food Safety and Retailer Standards in the UK.
He now finds himself getting more and more involved in the issues of Food Security and Sustainability, and will be sharing with the symposium what’s happening on his side of the Pond.
Q: What do people mean by “food security”?
A: It is how are we going to feed an ever-growing and burdensome world population that is due to grow by 35 per cent by 2050. We are going to need 60 per cent more food to feed everyone – a population of nearly nine billion.
We are already seeing the impacts of food insecurity – for example some responsibility for the Arab Spring (2011) has been apportioned to a rise in food prices. When food prices rise, we see unrest and rioting.
Developing countries will account for the largest percentage of population growth.
Q: So is it just a burgeoning population we will have to contend with?
A: No. What is also changing is that the population in developing countries are changing to more western-style diets. As people in Africa and Asia are moving out of poverty, they want to eat more protein-based, rather than traditional grain-based diets.
Q: So why is this a problem?
A: Well, if everyone in the world ate like an American, we would need three planets like Earth to produce enough food. But if everyone ate like some in Asia, say Indonesia, for example then we would be fine with the planet we have.
Q: Does that mean there is enough food to go round at the moment?
A: We don’t have enough food in the world – you can see that from the price increases. For example, in the last five years, rice and wheat prices have doubled and prices for maize are up by 200 per cent.
In my presentation I will be pulling together information from a wide series of sources to show what is happening around the world. For example, part of this is being driven by ethanol production – growing crops to produce fuel. This might reduce greenhouse gases, but it is not going to feed the world.
Conversely, around the world we are wasting a third of our food. In other words, the calorific value of the food we waste in the developed world would go a long way to bridging the gap in the developing world.
Q: What about the effects of migration?
A: By 2050 almost two-thirds of the world’s population are forecast to be living in cities. That will be make corresponding demands on fuel and water; there are already pressures on natural resources. And unfortunately the countries affected most, are also those most affected by climate change and water shortages – namely African and Asian countries.
Q: So climate change is related too?
A: Yes. Sea levels are rising which will take more land out of food production and bear in mind too that the largest part of the world’s population lives in coastal areas.
What is needed is a change in diet but bringing that about will require a huge change in attitudes.
Remember, it is not just a case of restriction of productive land, but we also have constraints on fertilisers and fuel and on approvals and acceptability of pesticides.
There is a need for sustainability, to conserve rainforest and stop deforestation.
Q: The picture appears very gloomy. What hope is there?
A: We need to get more from less – the buzz words are “sustainable intensification”. For example, the Thanet Earth development in the UK growing salad crops on a vast scale shows that the carbon footprint goes right down when you produce intensively.
But we have to ask ourselves some important questions. What place is there in growing crops that are essentially luxury items, such as iceberg lettuce, when we should be using that water and energy required to produce crops with a higher calorific value to feed people? When you look at it this way, not a lot of salad and tree crops are sustainable.
Q: But don’t we need fresh produce for our health?
A: Yes, but go to Mali and look at those people who are living on the edge of starvation and hunger. Fresh produce crops are not going to pull people out of hunger. It is the higher energy crops such as maize that will.
Q: It sounds like a moral dilemma.
A: It is. With climate change, Europe will get more self-sufficient and places on our latitude will become the breadbasket for the world and exports will increase. Parts of South American and sub-Saharan Africa will become barren and desert-like. In those areas, we should really be looking after their biodiversity and trying to reduce their carbon emissions.
The dilemma is how we start to bring about the change in the way people think.
Quite simply, at some stage whether it is governments, retailers or a groundswell of popular movement, we will have to realise it is wrong to carry on with this high calorie western diet while the rest of the world is starving. It may take legislation and taxation on high calorie foods.
It is a challenge for us in the developed world to understand that our actions need to change now if we are to feed huge populations around the world 30 years from now.
The problem is we have had this abundance of cheap food for so long but now we need to think further ahead.
Q: So what happens next?
A: Well, this is where technology comes in. Technology has a huge part to play in sustainable intensification. In the UK, the retailers’ sustainability agendas have been taking this into account and their programmes reflect that.
Taking Sainsbury’s as just one example, a lot of the retailer’s 20×20 sustainability commitments are concerned with how they will source their supplies faced with growing global demand. They have set up focus groups on protected crops, field crops and tree crops and these go cross-border – it is not about fortress Britain. It is about securing food supplies in a future where there will be greater demand from markets around the world.
But I don’t think the retailers will lead the charge on this as governments are not imposing legislation, retailers will not have to act.
I think it will probably lie in the hands of ordinary people to change their buying habits, but I don’t know what the catalyst for that will be, unless we go back to food riots and the effect that hunger might have on human behaviour.
Food is the world’s biggest industry, but we all take it for granted.
This is a fascinating subject and Andrew is both a passionate and informed believer. Still, we are going to listen carefully to Andrew’s presentation as we are not fully sold. It was just a couple of years ago that we were being told that the world had come close to approaching “peak oil” and that energy prices would rise for as far as we could imagine. Then came fracking and the shale oil boom and suddenly prices are dropping. Technology changes things, and just as the green revolution saved an earlier generation from a supposedly certain shortage of food, perhaps the genetic revolution will save another.
When we look for speakers though we don’t look for people we agree with, we look for people to challenge us and expose us to new ideas and new arguments. So we will be paying close attention to the case Andrew makes.
If you can, you should as well. Just sign up for The Global Trade Symposium and The New York Produce Show and Conference. You can sign up online right here or on site.