The world needs sustainable development… “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
1987 Brundtland Report
In May 2008 the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development started a 2 year cycle tackling the barriers to sustainable food security. Issues that are being addressed include agriculture, land use, rural development, drought and desertification. But what exactly is the situation on the ground with respect to global food security? The United Nations estimates that there are over 850 million people in the world facing chronic hunger! This figure may well be an understatement considering all the barriers to food security the world is currently facing but not yet tackling.
Soaring Food Prices
Are you paying more for your food? It should come as no surprise and this global trend is not likely to end soon. As things stand right now the world is simply not in a position to feed itself. Food production is facing numerous pressures – from climate change and increasing demand from rapidly growing populations to competition from bio-fuels, the rising cost of energy and scarce resources along with poor management of those resources. For farmers with access to markets bio-fuels certainly mean new opportunities however the food shortages mean increased prices for all and inability to meet the market demand.
Currently the Food and Agriculture Organisation forecasts that the world’s poorest countries will pay 56% to 74% more on cereal imports, prices of basic foods are up, major exporting countries have imposed export restrictions. The year 2008 saw Pakistan and Thai troops deployed to guard paddy fields and food riots reported in Haiti, Egypt, Cameroon, Senegal, Cote d’Iviore, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Philippines.
FAO estimates that 37 countries are in the throes of a food crisis. Already the World Food Program has issued an appeal for 755 million USD to fight malnutrition and hunger and the UN has set up a Task Force on the Global Food Crisis to help support this effort.
Demand for food is increasing for two primary reasons. The first is population growth, the second is a change in diets – particularly in developing countries as more people get access to better incomes, improving on their food consumption habits. While cereals are still the world’s most important source of food, meats, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables are fast becoming the chosen foods for those with disposable income in developing countries. Therefore there is an increasing global demand for these foods. In order to meet this increase in demand producers will be required to boost productivity. Sadly, it appears the opposite is happening.
Agriculture & Rural Development
750 million of the worlds one billion poorest people depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods. Yet the effects of climate change are expected to result in a significant productivity decline particularly in Africa and South Asia. Most alarming is that these two regions in particular are projected to have an additional 1.8 billion people to feed by 2050 due to rapid population growth.
Another serious challenge to development is increased land degradation – a situation that is particularly prevalent on the African continent. Rural populations in particular are affected by the reduction of soil fertility and therefore reduced food production, causing increased human hardship as well as exacerbating desertification.
Bio-fuels have had a significant impact on agricultural production with a resulting competition for arable land, water and inputs. Food production has been the biggest loser as the new source of income for the production of ethanol pulls rural and small scale farmers away from traditional food crops.
However in spite of this UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is optimistic. He says this crisis should be seen as an opportunity, “It is a huge chance to address the root problems of the world’s poorest people, 70% of whom live as small farmers. If we help them – if we offer aid and the right mix of sound local and international policies – the solution will come.”
Boosting Agricultural Production
The UN has highlighted three main ways to boost agricultural production. The first is increasing the land available for food production. It is estimated that 33% of the world is suitable for crop production and yet presently only 11% is being utilized for this purpose. The bulk of unused lands are in Africa and Latin America where infrastructure and protection of the environment are the main reasons for the failure to maximize on production capacity.
The second way to boost production is to increase the frequency of cropping and the third is improving yields. Malawi, a country that was once on the brink of famine, serves as an excellent example. In 2006 the Government of Malawi, against the advice of donors, opted to heavily subsidize seed and fertilizer for its farmers. Coupled with a season of good rains the corn yields doubled between 2005 to 2006 and increased even further into 2007. The country is now a large exporter of corn across the African continent. It is becoming increasingly clear that subsidies are essential but the question is, will other African states follow this example?
Increasing yields and reducing growing time can be done through genetically modified crops however this continues to be a controversial issue. Risks to the environment and to human and animal health are still uncertain. There are those who suggest that Africa must use everything at its disposal to kick off the green revolution however others feel the risks are simply too high. This remains a grey area and the future for genetically modified crops may well be determined at the national level.
Irrigation is crucial for global food supply. In Africa alone only 7% of arable land is irrigated. In sub-saharan Africa the figure is 4%. And yet one third of the population is undernourished. Furthermore the population is expected to grow from 700 million presently to 1.2 billion in 2030.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Stockholm International Water Institute and the International Water Management Institute alarming amounts of food go to waste between the processing, transport, retail and consumption chains. In the United States alone they estimate that 30% of food is thrown away while 40,000 billion litres of water go to waste – an amount that is sufficient to meet the requirements of 500 million people. With current estimates of the total Africa population at under 1 billion people that would mean enough water for over 50% of people living on the African continent.
Indeed the above organizations state that there is enough food to feed the active global population however food distribution and over-consumption are problems that need to be dealt with. Currently farmers are producing food to cover necessary consumption as well as waste. According to a Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture conducted last year, continuation of current food production and environmental trends will lead to an even bigger global crisis. Water productivity and wastage of food must be addressed – a 50% target of reduction in losses and waste through the food and consumption chain is recommended as an achievable target.
Food for All?
What is clear is that for the world to have food security renewed effort and vigour must be put into world agriculture both at the international and national levels. On the African continent in particular the situation is critical. In 2008 FAO announced 36 countries in the midst of a serious food crisis, 21 of these are on the African continent, 9 are in Asia, 4 in Latin America and the Caribbean and 2 in Europe.
The fact is that the world now looks to agriculture to do a number of critical things. First, boosting agriculture is the only way to guarantee food security. Second, we look to agriculture to provide balance to the ecosystem – maximizing use of the soils, water and other natural resources while ensuring environmental damage is minimized. Third, agriculture provides a source of livelihood for billions of people, primarily poor people across the globe.
It surely is time that the international community and governments take note of the importance of the farmers and rural stakeholders. Particularly in Africa, they can no longer be seen as peasants but should be seen and treated as custodians of our future.
Surely, it is time that investments be targeted at these critical players to ensure that the world has sustainable food security, sustainable poverty reduction and sustainable protection of the environment.
In the words of American Statesman Daniel Webster, "Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labour of man. When the tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization."