FeaturedInternationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 03

Looming food crisis

It is a strange paradox. The world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, yet 815 million people (roughly 11% of the global population) go to sleep hungry every night.

According to a UN report, by 2050, when the global population reaches 9.8 billion, our food supplies will be under great stress, and hunger around the world will be more common. While the demand for food will rise, the supply would dwindle due to climate change, urbanization, soil degradation and water shortages. Climate change is a disaster in the making and we must face it with all our resources.

Food security is a really serious issue facing all of humanity. The problem is how to feed a growing population at a time of climate change which is badly affecting food production in many parts of the world. Globally, we are reliant on a very slender thread of genetic diversity. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 50% of all human calories come from just three plants: rice, maize, and wheat.

Increasing yield per acre is important for feeding a growing population. Currently, only 12 crops account for 75% of all human calories. If a particular pest or pathogen arises, or a particular vulnerability to changing climates, the entire crop becomes vulnerable because of the lack of genetic variability within it.

This has happened before. In the 1950s, the global banana supply was largely based on a single variety called the Gros Michel. The Panama virus wiped it out because there was a lack of variability within the crop.

But there are solutions available now to tackle such challenges. There are about 5,500 different varieties of edible plants, and yet we have found ourselves concentrating on a very narrow selection. Another factor is the balance of vegetable-based diets versus meat-based diet.

One problem is our choice of food. A kilogram of beef is about 30 times more demanding on the environment than a kilogram of plant protein. For a sustainable future, quite radical change to our diets is needed. Unfortunately, developing societies too are shifting to a meat-based diet. If the populations of India or China were to adopt the same meat-rich diet as America, that would put tremendous pressure on global resources.

According to experts, we need to launch a global campaign to teach people to change their eating habits and patterns. The campaign should start with consumers being made aware of what they’re eating and the consequences of that. We must make people understand that eating beef is significantly more demanding on the environment than eating chicken and vegetables.

An encouraging trend is that lately people are taking more interest in vegetarian diets. An average person in the West is eating vegetarian meals three or four times per week. This is healthy and a big step towards solving the world food crisis.

But change does not come easily. And there is always resistance to new technologies. A vegan diet is less expensive and it’s certainly a lot better for the environment. Genetic modification (GM) is another issue where a poor public understanding of the underlying technology has led to a degree of concern. It’s often alleged that GM is not natural. But orthodox agriculture is not natural either. It’s extremely damaging to the environment and if GM crops can be produced that require less herbicide, or pesticide, or water, then we as a society have to understand that there are great benefits involved in the process.

In the long term, we must plan for greater diversity of food sources which should be more seasonal, and locally sourced. Our diet has been evolving all the time: 30 years ago an avocado was a very rare and exotic thing in Britain, and bananas only appeared after the Second World War. But now both these fruits are available everywhere round the year.

Not only should food production increase but there should also be more varieties of food. Dependence on a few varieties like wheat and rice should gradually be reduced.

Food experts say that locally produced foods would be the norm in the future. Locally sourced, seasonal food is good for our health and good for the environment. People might also think of growing their own food on a balcony, a roof, or in a garden. Not only is it enjoyable, but it also reconnects individuals with nature. There should be a massive effort towards encouraging people to produce their own food. This is good both for the individual family as well as the world at large. That is the only way to solve the looming world food crisis.