Increasing food production alone will not solve world hunger

Written by Duncan Willliams, Food Policy Manager at WWF UK.

‘People focused’ does not necessarily mean leaving the environment behind. We must not pursue environmental sustainability at the expense of poor people’s food security and nutrition. We must adopt a win-win strategy that promotes synergies and manages trade-offs between environmental sustainability, food security and improved nutrition, but this will require concerted efforts. We need to ensure food reaches everybody and is produced in such a way that nature can thrive. We already produce more than enough calories to feed the everybody easily.

The environment is the poor relation in the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) process. As a result we are facing increased problems that will affect the hungry disproportionally going forward. For the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) we need to remember these goals are meant to be sustainable, which means bringing together three equal dimensions – social, environment and economic.

When discussing food and agriculture in the SDGs, we should look at the whole food system. It is not about a production or a consumption focus but how the food system relies on a healthy natural environment to thrive. The Foresight report[1] investigated the world’s food production systems[2]. It found they are unsustainable and in attempting to improve the present ones, policy-makers face five major challenges:

  • Balancing future demand and supply sustainably – to ensure that food supplies are affordable;
  • Ensuring that there is adequate stability in food supplies – and protecting the most vulnerable from volatility that does occur;
  • Achieving global access to food and ending hunger;
  • Managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change;
  • Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world.

All of these need to be addressed. It is not a case of one taking priority over others or of having one at the expense of the other.

It is a false assumption that we can deal with hunger first and leave the environment for later. The recent IPCC reports warn that all aspects of food security will be affected by climate change. Food production has already been hit by changing rainfall, flooding and drought. Since 2008, at least one major global harvest has failed due to adverse weather, not least the crisis in the Sahel or the 2010 floods in Pakistan that destroyed millions of hectares of crops and the recent US snow storms, which killed thousands of head of cattle.

One of the most striking impacts of climate change in the decades ahead will be declining yields in key crops, such as rice and maize. Reduced yields will mean higher prices. At the same time fish stocks will decline in many key fisheries, as is already happening in the tropics. Other fisheries will move to colder waters; mackerel fisheries are migrating to Icelandic and Faros waters, where fishing quotas are being increased as a result.

It is not desirable to aim to increase food production by 60% by 2050 which would be the worst case scenario according to the FAO; one that can be avoided if we embrace solutions like empowering women, sustainable diets and waste reduction. A 60% increase will not solve global hunger, it won’t guarantee food is affordable and will be available to the poorest – especially since the global middle classes and rich will be demanding more resource intensive foods. This scenario will see food production remain as one of the key drivers of climate change.

It may not even be possible to increase food production to such large extent, as climate change will result in decreasing yields in some of the world’s largest agricultural areas, including sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  Increased oceanic acidification (another side effect) will reduce wild-caught fish yields, a key source of protein for many coastal communities. To compound it all, many agronomists point to the need to increase efficiency and production in sub-Saharan Africa, the one region that will be most hit by climate change. Added to this, there will be water shortages across many regions: Asia, North Africa and the Mediterranean.

We need to start thinking in a new way. We need to develop a food system that is resilient and resource efficient, and which supplies good, nutritious food to all, not just calories. It must leave space for forests – the lungs of the planet – as well as soil, land and aquatic biodiversity, and healthy ecosystems.

Food security impacts on all areas of human well-being, particularly on health. More than a billion people are undernourished worldwide.[3] Over half the world’s population is malnourished, eating too much or too little. 875 million people are hungry, and this statistic is based on the assumption that those consuming food have the calorie requirement associated with sedentary lifestyles, when you include active people, like farmers, the figure rises to 1.5 billion. There are also 2 billion people who lack the basic micro nutrients for a nutritious diet[4].

One of the impacts is that in many transition economies there is the double burden of hunger and obesity. In developing countries there is a short window to act before they too start suffering this double burden.

Sustainable agriculture has an important role in eliminating hunger and malnutrition[5]. However, the underlying causes of poor access, availability and use of food must be addressed.

For WWF UK a good way forward is to work towards sustainable food security, would be to bring together the social, economic and environmental aspects found in the 5 pillars of food security: Availability, Access, Utilization, Stability and Sustainability. In the year 2015, the post 2015 development summit and the climate conference in Paris are once in a lifetime opportunities to develop a new system that brings together development and the environment, whilst challenging the developed world to change its own model, as we strive towards a more equitable system. If we focus on either hunger or the environment, we will eventually come to a crunch point where moving to a sustainable system will be a lot more painful. Instead  we should address the two together.

The good news is we already produce enough food to feed 9 billion people. We are making huge strides forward in our understanding of agricultural practices, technology and diets. We need to capitalize on these findings and move towards sustainable food security.

In the coming years the food we eat will change. What we are able to feed our children and grandchildren will depend on what we do about climate change, hunger and equality now. What is on our plates and how we grow it will depend, in a large part, on the outcomes of the two big UN agreements in 2015.

 

[1] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/current-projects/global-food-and-farming-futures/reports-and-publications

[2] Foresight. 2011. The future of food and farming: challenges and choices for global sustainability. Final project report. London, The Government Office for Science. 208 pp.

[3] FAO, The state of food insecurity in the world 2012. Rome: FAO, 2012, p8. www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3027e/i3027e00.htm

[4] FAO (2011) Thompson, B. Amoroso, L.  Combating Micronutrient Deficiencies: Food Based Approaches http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/am027e/am027e.pdf

[5] IAASTD (2009) Agriculture at the cross roads, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development
http://www.agassessment.org/reports/IAASTD/EN/Agriculture%20at%20a%20Crossroads_Global%20Report%20(English).pdf

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