Food Security Requires Implementing Complementary Strategies

Stephen DeAngelis

May 06, 2013

Mankind has been trying to control the weather since the dawn of time. Historically, this intervention has taken the form of sacrifices, offerings, dances, and prayers to the gods who supposedly control such matters. There have also been more scientifically-based attempts to make rain, such as cloud seeding. Needless to say, these attempts have generally fallen short of the desired goal. Yet, as Keith A. Wheeler, chairman and CEO at ZedX Inc., reports, “All farmers, no matter their size, depend on the weather to the grow crops that feed the world, while providing a livelihood for their families and communities. This makes them among the most vulnerable to the changing climate. By 2050, if farmers are not assisted to meet these changes, agriculture yields will decrease with impacts projected to be the most severe in Africa and South Asia, with productivity decreasing by 15% and 18% respectively. Therefore, strategies to adapt to the significant shifts in weather patterns are greatly needed.” [“Building resilient food systems in a world of climate uncertainty,” The Guardian, 21 December 2012]

In other words, if we can’t change the weather then the weather needs to change us. The irony of this situation is that “agriculture today accounts for 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions, with another 17% attributed to land use change linked to deforestation.” That means that farmers are in some measure contributing to the climate variability with which they must contend. So one of the first strategies recommended to help shore-up food security involves empowering “farmers with the knowledge, practices and technologies needed to adapt and reduce agriculture’s contribution to global warming.” Fortunately, Wheeler reports, “Amidst these colossal challenges there is hope.” He explains:

“Technological innovations are at the forefront of meeting the world’s growing food demands, while reducing carbon emissions. High tech methods such as Precision Agriculture, for example, calculate the exact amount of fertilizer required by the soil on your farm, preventing over application and the release of unnecessary greenhouse gases, while simultaneously improving yields. Other practices, such as integrated pest management and pest information systems, improved training for farmers at all levels and new finance and risk management tools for smallholder farmers will all go a long way to building more resilient food systems. The thread that ties all of these innovations together is greater access for farmers to research, information and extension.”

The need for better food security is becoming increasingly evident. “Pressure on the world’s resources is intensifying,” writes Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. “Increased competition for these resources has been compounded by the effects of severe weather conditions.” [“Now is the time for action,” Financial Times, 21 November 2013] He explains:

“Since 2000, food prices have more than doubled because of soaring demand, with desertification, floods and drought adding significant volatility to the trend of food price inflation. To make matters worse, it is countries with already high rates of malnutrition that tend to be worst hit. People in Chad, Ethiopia and Angola spend up to 60 per cent of their weekly budget on food – much of it imported. The most vulnerable are hit the hardest by price rises.”

Polman admits there are no silver bullet solutions to the food security challenge. But he offers three strategies that he believes should be taken immediately. “First, we should eliminate the use of unsustainable biofuels.” By “unsustainable” he means biofuels derived from food crops (such as corn) or feedstock that is grown on ground that could be used to produce food crops. “Second, we need increased investment in those parts of Africa and Latin America where the last remaining serious agricultural expansion potential lies, or wherever current yields are threatened.” On this point, he agrees with Wheeler. Finally, he asserts that “developing country governments need to create long-term partnerships with the private sector, donors and civil society, to stimulate investment in commercial agriculture. The Copenhagen Consensus concluded that an investment in fighting malnutrition would benefit people more than any other type of investment – with a return of $30 for every $1 invested. And the World Bank found that an investment in nutrition can translate to a 2-3 per cent increase in a nation’s GDP each year, breaking the cycle of poverty that traps families and nations.”

Another recommended strategy for creating better food security is reducing food waste. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers asserts “the world wastes from one-third to one-half of the four billion metric tons of food it produces each year.” [“The World Wastes As Much As Half Its Food, New Study Finds,” by Jeff Spross, Climate Progress, 14 January 2013] If the waste itself is not bad enough, Spross reminds us, “Because any item of food also represents an entire chain of production, wasted food also translates into wasted fresh water, wasted energy, wasted cropland, and further contributions to global warming with no discernible counter-balancing benefit.” And one shouldn’t forget the amount of wasted money represented by wasted food. With the global population continuing to swell, wasted food puts greater pressure on rising food prices. Although the causes of wasted food are different in the developing and developed worlds, the problem is global. The report explains:

“In less-developed countries, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, wastage tends to occur primarily at the farmer-producer end of the supply chain. Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure mean that produce is frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions. As the development level of a country increases, so the food loss problem generally moves further up the supply chain with deficiencies in regional and national infrastructure having the largest impact. […] In mature, fully developed countries such as the UK, more-efficient farming practices and better transport, storage and processing facilities ensure that a larger proportion of the food produced reaches markets and consumers. However, characteristics associated with modern consumer culture mean produce is often wasted through retail and customer behavior.”

Since the causes of food waste are different, the strategies for reducing such waste must adapt to the situation. The report points out that controlling waste is beyond the capability of any single stakeholder (i.e., farmer, distributor, retailer, or consumer). Fortunately, it reports, “In most cases the sustainable solutions needed to reduce waste are well known. The challenge is transferring this know-how to where it is needed, and creating the political and social environment which encourages both transfer and adoption of these ideas to take place.” Brad Plumer reviews a few of the solutions that could be implemented. [“How the world manages to waste half its food,” Washington Post, 12 January 2013] He writes:

“For poorer countries, simply building better food-storage buildings could cut down massively on waste in places like Pakistan or Ghana (which lost 50 percent of its stored maize in 2008). Better harvesting technology and techniques could also help, although the report suggests that some nations like India will need more sweeping societal and political changes to cut down on waste. Meanwhile, wealthier regions like the United States and Europe will need to think harder about not throwing out so much perfectly good food. … One small step, which Britain has been exploring of late, is to rethink their use of food labels, which often encourage supermarkets to toss out food long before it actually goes bad.”

Another irony that we confront when discussing food security involves dietary habits. As food security improves so does the economic condition of impoverished people. As their wealth increases, their eating habits change and that can have a profound effect on food production. For one thing, studies have shown that as people scratch their way out of poverty their taste for meat grows. Raising livestock, however, is not the most efficient way to provide the protein that we need to be healthy. It takes a lot of land, feed, and water to raise livestock. Livestock, particularly cattle, also produce a lot of methane gas. You can’t blame (or prevent) those who have struggled to survive from wanting a more varied and enriched diet; but, we need to realize that our dietary choices have an impact. In the end, changing human behavior may be the most difficult challenge we face in striving for better food security.

For an excellent discussion on the challenges that lie ahead and some of the strategies that can be used to meet them, watch the video of a panel discussion held at The Aspen Institute last year. The first speaker, Jon Foley, Director, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, stated that if we don’t get agriculture right nothing else really matters. Foley offers five recommendations for improving global food security. The first recommendation he offered is to stop deforestation and halt agricultural expansion. This would help reduce agriculture’s carbon emission footprint. Second, he recommended closing “yield gaps” on underperforming lands. There are huge opportunities in Eastern Europe where farms are producing only 20 percent of what could be produced. Third, he recommended improving cropping efficiency. That is, ensure that resources like water and fertilizers are being used to maximum efficiency. Israel, for example, uses water 100 times more efficiently than Pakistan. Fourth, he says we need to shift dietary preferences. Finally, as discussed above, we need to reduce waste. Polman concludes, “Securing the future of agricultural development needs individual commitment and action on the ground. All of us, individuals, companies, policy makers and consumers, have a responsibility to act together, and the time to act is now.”