The Three Stages of Food Security: Denial, Ignorance, and Action

Denial and a blind eye are easy ways to avoid complex problems, but when it comes to food, 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. It goes to the heart of feeding everyone well by describing the three stages of food security.

image quote from Ratten Lal on the three stages of food security

There is a general understanding that people respond to new ideas in general and scientific evidence in particular in three stages

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

Roughly, denial, hope it goes away, and I knew it all along. 

This sequence is exemplary for recipients of new ideas who can focus on their response and readily move on. But it psychologically damages the innovator and even the messengers they might recruit. It is one reason 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 and the kicker where the credit is purloined because your colleagues are too busy generating their 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. 

Eventually, though, we still hope that good ideas have their day and that everyone concedes that the earth is not flat.

Scientists are human too 

They might be caricatured as nerds, but scientists are emotional beings like everyone else, 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 tentatively emerge into the real world.

Sometimes it’s the meteorologists who have to get the weather forecasts right or the technologists with the latest gadget or renewable energy invention. The epidemiologists and health professionals entered the firing line with the COVID pandemic giving climate scientists a well-earned break. We can always rely on economists to claim the limelight; however, their qualifications for science-based argument are dubious.  

Next up among the actual scientists are the handful of soil scientists, agro-ecologists, and food security experts because what they 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 vast global food security problem.

The research evidence for this assertion has accumulated steadily as the crisis has emerged. We know that 40% of global soils are degraded, that yield gaps in intensive agricultural systems have been closed, that yields are plateauing, and that technological efficiencies are still possible, but a global loss of soil carbon hampers production resilience.

We also know that a third of food is lost on its way to the plate and that the balance between crops and livestock could be more sustainable, not least because of the grain fed to livestock or the crops used for fuel.

These supply-side issues are matched by the access, distribution and reliability issues that affect consumers. 

Meanwhile, the global population is double what it was in the mid-1970s just 50 years ago, with a demand for 22 trillion kilocalories a day.

None of this is news. 

At least it shouldn’t be a surprise. The numbers for all the metrics that describe these challenges have been trending steadily for decades. We can see the crisis coming like the elephant in the living room.

So if it’s not news, where are we three stages of food security?

Are we in denial of food security, safely ignoring the 850 million starving people and a billion or so more who lack adequate nutrition?

Or are we in the thrall of the global food supply chain actors claiming that we have enough food and that, for years, they have been telling us they have fixed it?

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 stages one and two when it comes to food security—it is not true because the supermarkets are still packed full of Cheerios, and even if it is true, its not my problem. I can tap my card at the checkout.

Less cynically, it might be agreed that most people are unaware of the crisis.

The scientific evidence is still in the scholarly publications from the ivory towers and talked about in a handful of conferences and workshops attended chiefly by people who are already convinced there is a problem to solve. The same goes for the numerous achievable solutions to global food security; only a few are aware of them.

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

How can food security be a problem if a third of all food produced goes to waste?

Didn’t you just say that obesity rates are climbing faster than ever? Surely fat people are not short of food.

If the challenges beset food security, as the scientists say, then that is way too scary to contemplate. Climate refugees are bad enough; heaven helps us if hungry boat people beset us. 

No, it cannot be accurate.

What sustainably FED suggests

We need to get to stage 3 of the three stages of food security and fast.

Food security must leapfrog climate into the pole position of existential crises. Sure, climate change is cooking the planet and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. It’s a massive 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. Suppose we get to stage 3 and start working on food supply, efficiency and resilience issues right now. In that case, 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.

At sustainably FED we are trying our best to raise awareness. We are scientists who expect to suffer when the three-stage response of denial, ghosting and stealing of thunder comes our way, especially that frustrating stage three.

But bring it on. 

If everyone chirps, ‘I told you so’ all over our comments sections we would be delighted for it would mean that denial and blindness have given way to the potential for action.

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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