Professor Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security gave the afternoon keynote at the Nexus Network second Annual Conference on 19 November 2015, on ‘Systems approaches to managing the nexus: can we really do it?’.
You can download a pdf of Tim Benton’s talk here Nexus_London_Nov_2015_TimBenton
The following is an overview of Tim benton’s talk, by conference participant Chaitanya Kumar.
The food Nexus
A simple yet effective way of understanding the challenge of Nexus is to look at food consumption. Embodied in the daily food intake of an average UK citizen are roughly 2231 litres of rainwater, 159 litres of “blue” (tap) water and 108 litres of imported water – this includes water used in the production and supply of goods.
But 8 of the top 10 countries countries that UK imports its embodied water from are drought ridden. So in a globalised world, what we eat in the UK can have an impact, for example on groundwater in India and subsequently on other land uses and energy.
Highlighting this interconnectedness of the global nexus, Professor Benton shared a revealing statistic that the agri-food sector contributes 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions from the service sector in the UK.
As well as climate change, agriculture is already under pressure from urbanisation and has pretty much already used the available land on the planet.
So we need a serious rethink of how we can provide essential nutrition for the burgeoning masses in the coming decades whilst minimising impacts.
The Food System
So how can a systems approach tackle the complexity of our modern food systems and build in sustainability? Professor Benton suggests we embrace complexity to arrive at simplicity.
Managing the use of land, a basic yet limited natural resource, is critical in the long run. “Sustainability” is about maintaining the services land provides, at a landscape scale and appropriate to context. So for instance, debates like the use of land for food vs bio-fuel or tourism vs wildlife or other ecosystem services require a thorough understanding of implications and not an analysis based on simple trade-offs.
Equally important is the approach towards better demand side management. Where is the rise in demand expected to come from? What are the types of food requirements in the future and how to manage them sustainably?
Much has been said about the need to consume less meat as an effort to combat climate change. While consumers blame companies for harmful agricultural practices, companies highlight the rising consumer demand for meat. Governments typically tend to stay out of it as long as the market seems to work. In such an environment, access to knowledge on food and its impacts isn’t enough in motivating consumers to change habits. If bad food is plentiful and cheap, it is difficult to avoid buying it.
Structural changes are therefore needed at the consumer end, creating an environment where rational choice is in fact applicable and is not outcompeted by cheap calories.
A Systems approach
A systems model for the food system requires inputs from a broad spectrum of disciplines.
A good model has clear-cut boundaries in terms of its subject focus; the greater the specificity the easier it is to identify leverage points for intervention. Whilst models are useful, it is important to understand that they do not in themselves contain all the answers but can lead to better and effective decision-making.
For the purpose of decision-making, a trans-disciplinarily approach that broadens the framework of problems beyond academic disciplines and incorporates the understandings and priorities of other stakeholders is needed. Such approaches can more appropriately counter the influences of strong political and institutional pressures that tend to favour certain approaches over others.
The nexus approach presents a unique challenge and at the same time an opportunity for multiple groups with varied interests to work together. Community building and the alignment of common goals amongst various stakeholders is critical for effecting long term change.
In his closing remarks, Professor Benton offered a couple of specific overarching recommendations to achieve the vision of sustainable, nutritious food to meet the needs of a healthy diet for all. Besides a systems thinking approach to the challenge, he said it will be useful to develop an IPCC like model of in-depth global research for sustainable food that can better inform policy making. Secondly, driving an environment of innovation in the food system will be important in addressing its myriad challenges.
Professor Tim Benton is the UK Champion for Global Food Security. He tweets at @
Main image credit: with thanks to Paul Saad on flickr.
Conference image: with thanks to Edwin Cristancho Pinilla.