Food security

Food security is when there is always access to sufficient food.

Most of us are able to go to the supermarket, fill a trolley, swipe a plastic card at the checkout, and go home with enough food to feed ourselves for a week.

Buying food is so easy and routine that we take it for granted.

The UN estimates that over 1 billion people — that is one in seven of the world population— don’t do this. Not because they don’t want to but because they can’t. For these people, finding enough to eat is very real.

Much of life is about the next meal when there are no shelves stacked with produce or credit cards to use at the checkout. It is about what you can grow or maybe by or barter if there is work to be had.

There are one billion people who do not have a secure food supply — that is one in seven of the world’s population.

Before agriculture

10,000 years ago there were perhaps 1 million people spread thinly across all the continents except Antarctica.

All these people had to find food. Edible items that they could gather or catch required effort that took up most of their time. Along with moving from place to place with the seasons as food sources waxed and waned.

Those fortunate enough to live on the coast or next to large lakes could bring regular fish and shellfish catches to their camps. Elsewhere it was a requirement to be mobile and opportunistic.

In this hand to mouth existence, most of the time and much of the culture and customs would have been about food security.

food security | amazing produce in a grocers shop in Florence, Italy

Disease, dangerous animals, and ruthless neighbours would have taken their toll but nothing as much as starvation. It was food and water supplies that really mattered. Shortages of food and water would have been hardest on the young. And food security would have driven behaviour for millennia. 

10,000 years ago was the start of the biggest change in human history. Before thinking about this change it is worth noting how recently it has happened.

Fossil and DNA evidence suggest that Homo sapiens are about 3 million years old. 10,000 years is less than 0.3% of this time.

The common analogy is the 24-hour clock. If the duration of human existence is condensed to 24 hours then this massive change of growing our own food began at four minutes to midnight. And in the space of a minute had covered the world.

Today at any given time there are around one million people in the sky sitting in commercial airliners — 10,000 years ago there were only one million people alive

After agriculture

Change of course was the invention of agriculture — the ability to harness plant and animal production specifically to feed people.

Even though it is staggeringly recent in evolutionary timeframe, this invention that first took hold in the Middle East, was so effective that it spread across the globe in a blink.

Harnessing net primary production into crops and domestic animals meant that food was

  • plentiful
  • reliable
  • needed less labour
  • energy rich

People needed to spend far less time hunting and gathering. 

It was even possible to stay in one place through all the seasons. Staying put meant it was worth the effort to build and defend large structures — suddenly real estate had value.

Land management had been invented and it also made sense to get organized to protect the crops and livestock.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Agriculture was a great boon. Humans were now able to channel net primary production into more humans. And this they did, spectacularly so where the conditions were favourable.

Great cultures and civilisations from great Zimbabwe to the Incas appeared to admit demonstrate making more people could bring extraordinary change.

Except that it did not last. Channeling primary production into people was addictive. Once they were more mouths to feed they had to be fed. Hunger can make people disruptive at first and desperate the end. These early civilisations were the product of agriculture but they were also at its mercy.

Agriculture created plenty, but once that was converted into people it also brought great risk.

All these new people had to be fed and so it was essential to keep growing food. Now there were crops and livestock the irony was that food supply was often less secure than before — food security was an issue again.

Jared Diamond describes what happened to many of these early civilisations created thanks to agriculture. Collapse is the title of his book and it neatly sums it up. Many of the civilizations built on early agriculture became victims of their own success, expanding to the limit and failing when the limit or was breached when production fell away.

Today agriculture is heavily subsidized by fossil fuel energy that we used to prepare the fields and, most importantly, make fertilisers that replace the essential nutrients the crops take out of the soil.

Today more than 38% of the land area [49,322,388 km2] is under some form of agricultural production and thanks to a couple of centuries of fossil fuel driven expansion there are 7 billion humans who use half the world’s net primary production to feed themselves and their animals.

As far as we know such appropriation of energy and resources by one species is unprecedented in earth’s history. It is a planet scale disturbance along the lines of oxygenation of the atmosphere [420 million years ago], climate reversals and meteorite strikes.

We know some of the consequences are environment issues themselves: biodiversity loss, climate change,

What we also know — but would rather not — is that we have little or no food security.

Current food supply will need to double in the next 30 years.

This is what it is — a food security risk.

No amount of fear mongering will change the reality — our success has weakened our ability to feed ourselves and when we can’t the outcomes will be messy.

food security | farming

Update | Food security risk

Recently the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] again reminded us of the consequences of world population growth.

In short we will need another green revolution that in the 1980’s saw a decade of food production yield increases of over 3% per year. And even if this happens distribution and inequity problems will leave nearly a billion people without enough food. 

Suppose we ignore the moral dilemma this poses, such large numbers of impoverished and hungry people represents a powerful destabilizing force and a risk to global security.

The FAO believes that global food production will need to grow at around 1% annually to avoid these problems and this will be tough given the usual solutions of 1) using more arable land and 2) finding more yield per hectare seem exhausted.

For the past 20 years the rate of yield increase has been stuck at 0.6 to 0.8 per cent and just about all the available arable land is already in use, or worse, is degrading. 

We are entering a generation that must first accept the immediacy and magnitude of food security risk… and then do something about it.

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food security seems far away when there is chocolate cake

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