My previous Comments pages focused on issues surrounding biofuels, at a time when oil prices were close to $150 per barrel and food commodity prices were also at all-time highs. The competition for land and resources between food and fuel was a hot topic. That seems a long time ago now, with headlines in the US and Europe dominated by news of the credit crunch, falling house prices, economic stimulus packages and job losses. It amazes me that Western governments have suddenly been able to find billions or even trillions of dollars to try and restore economic security, when for years they have been unable to even provide $1 billion to improve food security.
Although the developed world may have moved on from concerns about food security at the present time it will, without doubt, have to face up to that issue again in the near future. Economics moves naturally up and down in cycles - boom and bust at the extremes. In time - our current woes will have faded into another economic upswing. With a growing world population, increased pressure on land use, scarcity of water and the impact of climate change then the challenges of providing enough food for everyone will certainly come back to confront us.
The WHO defines food security as a state 'when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life. 'Food security is essential to development. Research shows that adequate and appropriate nutrition frees people from the burdens of disease, enabling them to work, concentrate, study and educate themselves out of poverty – or at the very least to feed themselves better.
In December 2008, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published its latest report on food security – The state of food insecurity in the world, 2008. FAO’s most recent estimates (2007) put the number of hungry people at 923 million. This is 75 million more people than in the previous year. Of these additional 75 million empty bellies, 41 million are in Asia and the Pacific and 24 million in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The statistics are pretty damning – nobody can look at these figures without saying "this is wrong." Now is the time for everyone, everywhere to ask themselves the question – WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THIS? At the top level, the solutions are quite simple, whether they are for a nation, a village or a family – GROW MORE AND LOSE LESS.
Technology to the rescue
Growing more could be a simple matter of putting more land into productive agricultural use – certainly in Europe and the US, significant tracts of land were set aside by farmers as governments paid them to reduce output in the face of apparent food surpluses in the developed world. However, rising incomes worldwide also increase the demand for meat products, which use land much less efficiently than staples and cereal crops. Therefore, availability of new land for agriculture will become increasingly limited, and the pressure will be to use the existing land spaces more effectively.
This is where technology can, once more, come to the rescue. In the complacent times of the last 20 years, investment in agricultural research has generally declined. India, Brazil and China have been notable exceptions to this trend and have achieved remarkable improvements in agricultural output.
Brazil alone spends more on its domestic research programme than the rest of the world contributes to the CGIAR system. It is no surprise that Brazil’s surplus production has effectively plugged the gap in world food supply over the past three years.
Technology can give us better practice in agronomy to manage our soils more sustainably and conserve fertilizer – remember that we should worry about peak phosphate supply as well as peak oil. Furthermore, new varieties offer the prospect of using marginal lands more effectively through better tolerance of pests, salinity and drought. These new varieties can come eventually through traditional breeding programmes or more rapidly through the use of genetic modification techniques. Provided new crops receive objective and rigorous scientific testing before introduction, we should not let the comfortable eco-fundamentalists of Europe deny decent food security to those 923 million people identified by the FAO report. GMO crops have been consumed in the US for over 10 years now with no adverse effects on human health or biodiversity – probably the biggest and most rigorous field trial in history!
Waste not, want not
Whilst technology will undoubtedly hold many of the keys to long term global food security, the development and testing of new varieties or techniques takes time. It may be 10 years or more before people see the benefits. However, there is a lot we can do today with existing knowledge. Part of the key is also to avoid waste along the whole length of the food chain.
On average, up to 40% of what we already grow is lost to pests, diseases and spoilage whilst in the field or in transit and storage after harvest. In some developing countries these figures can go as high as 70%. The insects, weeds and microbial pests that cause these problems are CABI’s area of expertise – we can play a key role in helping the world lose less.
In Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, CABI’s Good Seed Initiative puts this theory into practice by educating hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers about the value of good quality seed and how they can improve the quality of both indigenous and introduced seeds. Better seeds mean stronger crops. A good start.
From then on, the principle of minimizing waste translates into avoiding crop failure and maximizing harvest. Here, the Global Plant Clinic (GPC) comes into its own. With the benefit of funding from the UK’s Department for International Development, the GPC helps co-ordinate the fight against crop losses due to disease by running plant health clinics in local markets of developing countries so that poor farmers have access to them. As well as setting up, training and supporting developing plant healthcare systems, the GPC is actively involved in disease surveillance and provides a valuable diagnostic service.
Prevention being as important as cure, other CABI projects across the globe make sure that the harvest is secured through integrated, locally affordable and sustainable strategies. One successful example is in the fight against the armyworm. As devastating as its name suggests, these voracious caterpillars attack sorghum, millet, rice and pasture across sub-Saharan Africa. The introduction of national forecasting systems aid farmers in predicting armyworm migration patterns and allow them time to use valuable resources in protecting their crops. In Malawi, we have been helping to manage problems with grain-boring insects so that post-harvest losses of stored maize are reduced. At the production stages of the food chain, CABI consultants prevent losses in food manufacturing through fungal contamination. We prevent waste and energy losses in the developed world so that farmers in the developing world can prosper.
Back to economics
Nevertheless, it all comes down to money in the end. Helping farmers lose less of their crops will be a key factor in promoting food security, but even in the poorest countries those rural farmers aspire to more than self-sufficiency. They want, and deserve, to improve their livelihoods so as to buy higher quality, more nutritious food and to afford a better standard of living, healthcare and education. So we also need to build the knowledge and skills that will help them earn more for their crops. In an increasingly global food system, this is about quality as well as quantity. Even though tariff barriers to trade are being lowered, regulations to reduce pesticide residues and prevent the spread of plant diseases can act as major barriers to farmers who want to access the high value markets in Europe and America. In Pakistan, CABI has helped farmers to move from growing staples into higher value horticulture, as well as introducing techniques of integrated pest management that allow them to meet the standards for export of fruit into Europe.
Food security is then only the first step towards greater economic independence for farmers. But our ultimate goal must lie beyond questions of pure market economics.
“Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold...It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones in floods caused by senseless deforestation in a neighbouring country. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
To find out more:
The FAO has helpfully provided maps of world hunger and statistics on food security and contributing factors.
The FAO High Level Conference on World Food Security: The Challenges of Climate Change & Bioenergy was held in June 2008. This is good place to follow the discussion about how climate change and bioenergy will challenge food security and how best to buffer against their effects. The International Monetary Fund has also predicted crop losses as a result of climate change.
The Millennium Development Goals are the basic standards against which progress (or lack of it) is measured.
For more information about the state of the world’s nutrition, where better to start than the WHO’s 10 Facts on Nutrition. If this doesn’t spur you on to help CABI in our fight against world hunger, I don’t know what will!