01 February 2010

Food Security: The Triple Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People

A recent paper in Science which I contributed to dwells on how 9 billion people will be able to avoid hunger in 2050.

The demand for food is going to explode in the next 40 years. Rapidly growing incomes demand more animal products, which are cereal intensive. As populations grow, so too does demand. Yet today, 1 billion people cannot get access to enough food to stave off hunger. Meeting the additional demand without making a dent in the 1 billion is not going to be easy. Meeting the demand while drastically reducing hunger will be even harder. Doing all of that in a way that does not damage the environment and avoids conflict adds to the challenge. It would be so much easier to have to deal with only the first of these 3 challenges. But they are inseparable. Meeting increased demand while ignoring sustainability and hunger represents the hollowest of achievements.

Recognising the indivisibility of these three challenges automatically rules out business as usual. Radical changes are needed in the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed and accessed.

The paper in Science, authored by the lead experts on the Foresight project, explores 5 components of the food system that need to be changed.

Closing the yield gap. There is much variation in the ability of farmers to produce food from a given set of inputs. Can the yields from those who produce the lowest approach the yields from those who produce the highest? Those producing the lowest yields have the weakest access to high quality inputs such as knowledge, infrastructure, water, fertilizers and finance. These inequalities must be addressed head on if yield gaps are to be closed. This means that extension agents need to work where it is least convenient. Microfinance organisations need to be incentivised to develop new products and services for those who are currently not considered creditworthy. Irrigation needs to penetrate historically less favoured areas. Roads need to be built where they can generate the most food security, not the most food.

Increasing production limits. Technology has a key role to play here, whether conventional or biogenic. But again, the frame of meeting demand, ending hunger, and doing it sustainably shapes the processes of technology development. Genuinely inclusive processes need to be developed to set priorities, determine access, assess risk and regulate new technologies so they go beyond merely producing more food for the newly affluent. Innovations in institutional arrangements will be as important as technological innovations.

Reducing waste. 30-40% of food is lost to waste. We believe this is not inevitable. In the richer countries, food is cheap and is not consumed with care. Significant behaviour changes, akin to attitude shifts around recycling, will be needed to change this situation. In the poorer countries, much food is wasted due to poor storage and transport infrastructure. Giving attention to post harvest losses became unfashionable in the 1990s—this has to change.

Changing diets. As incomes increase more meat is demanded by consumers, putting more pressure on natural resources. But livestock is an important part of rural livelihoods. More research is needed to develop livestock and poultry that are less demanding in terms of cereals. This will be good for poor and rich farmers alike and for sustainability of land use. And more research is needed to find effective strategies to shift consumer preferences in rich countries towards healthier meat choices,

Expanding aquaculture. Aquatic products play a critical role in the diets of consumers across the income spectrum. We feel that there is scope—through technical and institutional innovations—for greater aquaculture production in places where it has not proved commercially viable, often the places where most hungry people live.

These 5 elements may or may not be the most important elements of a new approach to food production, storage, distribution and access. But they way we have framed the 5 as needing to address all 3 goals--meet demand, end hunger, do it sustainably--provides an illustration of how we think food systems need to be radically re-cast. For this recasting to stick, it is going to have to be backed by new alliances of natural scientists and social scientists to develop technologies and practices that are socially and environmentally sustainable, new institutions that bring in marginalised voices to affect a wide range of decision making processes, new incentives for powerful actors to respond to these new voices, and new ways of monitoring everyone’s commitment to feeding 9 billion.

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