Food insecurity has always been with us.
Before agriculture, human life was all about finding enough food and water, moving with the seasons and the weather to where opportunity could be found. Only those close to secure food sources could find time to invent and paint cave walls.
Agriculture began 10,000 years ago and little would have changed. Weak yields, pests and raiding neighbors would have made the choice to stay put and grow a crop a risky proposition.
It stayed risky for thousands of years. Cultures did spring up from good production only to collapse when the nutrients or the water ran out.
Reliable food production arrived with inputs — fossil fuels and machinery to replace animal and human power, and fertilizers to replace the nutrient the crops were using up.
The result of this stabile food production was world population growth.
As population continues to rise at 8,000 an hour the demand for food will rise too. As wealth grows and lifestyles improve so a greater proportion of this growing number will consume more calories from a more protein and oil rich diet as we see diet diversity decline.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation [FAO] has reiterated what we intuitively know. The world must “increase its food production by 60 per cent by mid-century or risk serious food shortages that could bring social unrest and civil wars”.
When people are poor they are also desperate and consume where and when they can without regard for the environmental consequences. A farmer with a loan to repay will push for high yields just to keep up the repayments even though he knows it is not the best stewardship option.
This is why many propose that the solution for environmental sustainability is wealth creation. Yet when everyone is wealthy they will spend their money on the more desirable food and drink — beef steak, lamb shanks with rosemary and salmon sashimi.
This food requires many more calories because the animals also have to eat.
So we have both a volume and a diet diversity problem with food production.
You would think that we are preparing for this food insecurity.
The FAO claims we are not. Agricultural research is experiencing a funding squeeze and many agricultural scientists doubt that we will perfect the innovation to keep yields high and food production at levels to meet growing demand.
Some developing nations will need to increase crop production by over 75% equivalent to a second green revolution. Even if the Asia-Pacific region meets its millennium development goal of reducing the number of chronically hungry people to 12% of the population, there would still be 500 million chronically hungry.
The FAO warns that food shortages would risk social and political unrest, civil war and terrorism and destabilize world security. There is nothing like a bare pantry to trigger our base instincts for self-preservation.
There are still 842 million hungry people in the world — 12% of the total. This leads to statistics such as one in four children under five years old are stunted due to malnutrition.
hunger is far away when the privileged among us have access to rich foods
Large absolute numbers of hungry people increase the risk.
Then we find that water scarcity is increasing, especially in populous nations like China and India.
Poverty tempts farmers to switch to more profitable cash crops with bio-energy crops recently added to the options for earning monetary returns.
The climate change issues such bio-energy offset options were designed to mitigate are also kicking in. Australia, Canada, China, Russia and the United States have all suffered major food production losses from floods and droughts.
The FAO suggests two obvious option to mitigate this major risk to global security
Now we have been doing this for a while now, especially since the green revolution of the 1980’s and the easy wins have been won. Most of the usable arable land is already in use. Indeed much of it is now degrading, alarmingly fast in some areas.
In the heady days of the 1980’s growth in crop yield average over 3% per annum. In the last 20 years global averages have hovered around 0.7%, still in positive territory but half a percentage point off what is needed to mitigate the food insecurity.
Neither of these traditional options seems likely to cut it.
Many more options must be put into the mix. Here are a few of those we know about…
There will be more for although food insecurity is as high has it has been since our hunter-gatherer days, we are still smart and capable of extraordinary innovation when pressed.
Maybe we just need some of those innovators at the FAO.
fresh produce in an Italian village store
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