The three stages of food security

Denial and a blind eye are easy ways to avoid difficult problems but when it comes to food, well, read on…

I love this quote from the eminent soil scientist Professor Ratten Lal that Gabrielle Chan uses in her book on the role of farming in modern Australia

image quote from Ratten Lal on the three stages of a scientific idea

This quote summarises the human response to new ideas in general and scientific evidence in particular into three stages

  1. Not true. 
  2. Better ignore it.
  3. I told you it was true.

This sequence is psychologically damaging and is why most scientists hide in the ivory towers. Inside the universities, it is much easier to avoid the emotionally debilitating ‘not true’ and ‘better ignore it’ responses to new evidence because your colleagues are too busy generating their own slice of scientific wisdom to be bothered about yours.

The towers also have their systems of reward and meritocracy — the number of peer-reviewed papers published and research grants secured — that means the humble pie of “I told you it was true” doesn’t give your ego indigestion. 

Scientists are human too 

Scientists are emotional beings, albeit socially challenged with limited dress sense.

We suffer when the three-stage response of denial, ghosting and stealing of thunder comes our way and you can’t blame us for hiding in ivory towers that offer some protection. 

But we also know that society needs what science has to offer. Evidence, objectivity, and truth are critical in the arsenal deployed to keep 8 billion people from starving or killing each other. 

So periodically, a few brave scientists emerge, tentatively, into the real world.

The epidemiologists and health professionals are in the firing line right now while the climate scientists take a well-earned break. 

Next up are the handful of soil scientists, agro-ecologists, and food security experts because what they have to say will trigger a tumultuous expression of Ratten Lal’s three stages.

The scientific evidence is that agricultural soils are depleted, intensive food production systems have limited resilience, just-in-time supply chains are fragile, food waste is unsustainable, and population pressure is increasing. 

In short, we have a global food security problem.

young scientists in an engineering lab
Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

UNESCO report estimated that in 2018 there were 8.8 million scientists worldwide

Three stages of food security

Most of the world is somewhere between stage one and two when it comes to food security.

The scientific evidence is still in the erudite publications from the ivory towers and a handful of conferences and workshops attended mostly by people who are already convinced there is a problem to solve. The same goes for the numerous and achievable solutions to global food security. 

The rest of the world is incredulous given there is plenty of food and those without adequate nutrition are far away in other countries. 

Anyway, how can food security be a problem if a third of all food produced goes to waste?

And if food security was beset by the challenges scientists say it is, then that is way too scary to contemplate. Climate refugees are bad enough, heaven help us all if we are beset by hungry boat people. 

No, it cannot be true.

I told you food security was the biggest challenge

We need to get to stage 3 and fast.

Climate change is cooking the planet and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. It’s a huge deal for humanity, not least because of the locked-in changes from an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 419 ppm.

Climate change threatens the destruction of humanity’s long-term potential but it is not the biggest existential risk. 

That dubious honour goes to food security.

We need everyone to be saying “I told you it was all about the food” and soon because there is still time. If we get to stage 3 and start working on food supply, efficiency and resilience issues right now there is a good chance that humanity can feed itself for long enough to extinguish all the other existential threats.

If too many of us are starving we will become like mice at the end of a plague, gruesome.

Hero image of Harvard University modified from photo by Somesh Kesarla Suresh on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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