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Sunday, February 24, 2013

We Must Build a Sustainable and Equitable Global Food System

Nearly 1 billion people, a majority of them smallholder farmers, are chronically hungry and malnourished. According to Oxfam International, the poor spend 50-80% of their meager earnings on food. A report published by UNICEF in 2009 concluded that because of low caloric intake and poor nutrition, the next generation of Kenyans would be shorter, less intelligent and less productive.

High food prices and supply volatilities have caused significant declines in daily nourishment levels. A World Bank report published in 2011 estimated that the global food price spikes in 2008 pushed 44 million people below the poverty line, most of them in developing countries.

The global food system faces a growing convergence of complex interconnected environmental problems; including challenges like a bulging global middle class, climate change, land degradation and the more serious threat to the survival of the biodiversity and ecosystems services upon which agriculture and the wider economy depends.

It is estimated that 2 million hectares of rainfed and irrigated agricultural lands are lost to production every year due to severe land degradation, among other factors. But it takes approximately 500 years to replace 25 millimeters of topsoil lost to erosion.  Approximately 30% of the world's cropland has become unproductive over the last 40 years due to land degradation. 75% of the genetic diversity of crop plants has been lost in the past century. Ninety percent of the world's food is derived from just 15 plant and 8 animal species.

According to the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012, food production needs to increase by 60% over the next 40 years to meet the rising global demand for food. The continued production of adequate food supplies is directly dependent on ample quantities of fertile soil, fresh water, energy, and natural biodiversity.  According to the 2013 World Economic Report food and nutrition security is a major global concern as the world prepares to feed a growing population on a dwindling resource base, in an era of increased volatility and uncertainty.

How far our population has overshot the planet’s long-term carrying capacity is approximated by ecological footprint analysis. Ecological footprint analysis shows that to support the current population of seven billion, with current production technology and consumption levels of the United States of America, would require an additional four to five more Earths.

Adding the projected 2.5 billion more of our kind by 2050 would make the human ecological footprint on planet’s life-support systems disproportionately worse. The boisterous optimism of many analysts regarding our ability to feed billions more is unnerving. If it is trivial to feed billions more, why are millions undernourished and chronically hungry today? 

Could a breakdown in the planet’s life-support systems cause our civilization to collapse? In my view scarce ecological resources; water, soils and genetic resources, exacerbated by climate change, could trigger famines, epidemics and conflict over resources, leading to a disintegration of central control within communities and across nations.

Of course, the claim is often made that our ingenuity and technological innovation will cause us to expand the Earth’s carrying capacity and avoid a Malthusian catastrophe. The Green Revolution; fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and improved seeds expanded our capacity to produce more food in the past century. But today millions of hectares agricultural land is poisoned, our planet is hotter, our lakes are polluted, falling water tables and our food base is held captive by a narrow crop base. Rising farm debt, suicides, falling commodity prices and enhanced government subsidy payments are the hallmark of high input agriculture.

In today’s world, the technologies that fueled the Green Revolution are antiquated and would be akin to deploying bayonets and horses to execute a 21st century warfare. The search for low-input, diversified, energy and water-efficient agricultural production systems must become urgent global research and policy priorities. This calls for placing more effort into genetic and ecological research and a shift from a crop centred to a farming systems-based approach. Maintaining the productivity of the ecological foundations of food production through safeguarding the fertility of soil, efficient water use, judicious exploitation of agro-bio-diversity, collection, conservation and optimum utilization of genetic resources is essential for sustainable food production.

What is produced, how it is produced and for whom it is produced are critical questions that must addressed if an ecologically sustainable and equitable global food system is to emerge. The development of ecologically and economically viable food systems must come from novel designs of cropping and or livestock systems managed with local knowledge and eco-technologies appropriate to farmers' resources and agro-ecologies. 

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