Aug 16

Agricultural Resilience Will Prevent the Next Food Crisis

Editorial Staff
Sep 8, 2020

Image: Jan Kopřiva via Unsplash

The dramatic long-term impacts of population growth and climate change could push hundreds of millions of people to the brink of starvation by 2050. Adopting more resilient agriculture practices, especially in the most affected areas of developing countries, could be the ultimate solution.

Population growth outpaces food production

The past decades have seen major improvements in food security. Food consumption per person increased from an average of 2360 kcal/person/day in the mid-1960s to 2800 kcal currently. This growth has been accompanied by a population boom and was driven by a major shift towards more livestock production and advancements in agricultural techniques.

The gains in global food consumption reflected predominantly those of the developing countries of the global South, given that the industrial nations across the global North had fairly high levels of per capita food consumption already in the mid-1960s. But as the world’s population continues to surge and the impact of climate change looks increasingly worrisome, the current rate of agricultural development may not be enough.

Today, 381 million people in Africa – 19.1 % of its population – are considered undernourished. This rate is more than double the 8.3% rate in Asia. At the current rate, by 2030, Africa will be home to more than half of the world’s chronically hungry.

According to projections from the UN, the global population is expected to increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050. The high fertility rates south of the Sahara indicates that this region will account for more than half of global population growth, adding an additional 1 billion people.

In thirty years the demand for food will be 60% greater than it is today. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation published a report in 2009 which suggested that by 2050 agricultural production will have to rise by 70% to meet projected demand.

Since most land suitable for farming is already farmed, this growth must come from higher yields. At the same time, rising temperatures could substantially decrease the acreage of global arid land. Without major advancements, the amount of food we are currently growing will feed only half of the population by 2050.

Until now, sub-Saharan Africa, excluding Nigeria, has stood out as the only region that failed to make any progress in raising per-capita food consumption since the mid-1960s.

Although Nigeria and a number of other countries made significant progress to achieve 2400 kcal/person/ day, including Mauritius, Mauritania, the Gambia, Ghana, Gabon, Benin and Togo, their weight in the regional total is still not enough. Overall, the regional picture is dominated by failures to boost food manufacturing capacity. Among the 12 African countries with a population of over 15 million, most have a per-capita food consumption that is lower than what it had been in the past.  

In addition to leading in global population growth, African nations and those in South Asia will likewise be on the front lines of climate change. Currently, 1% of the world is a barely livable hot zone, but in 50 years that number could rise to 19%.

This situation will put major pressure on existing food systems, while the UN already questions the economic, social and environmental sustainability of existing agricultural practices.

The only solution is to significantly increase investments into agricultural resilience and manufacturing capacities.

Green fertilisers and genome editing

A shortened definition by the UN indicates that “a sustainable agriculture system meets the following criteria: land tenure is established; soil fertility is maintained and improved water quality is enhanced; and biodiversity is protected.”

Thus, global and local businesses should embrace a more responsible corporate strategy based on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) factors, while striving to introduce new techniques and technologies.

For instance, global corporations such as Russia’s PhosAgro, one of the world’s largest producers of phosphate fertilisers, are working to secure an adequate supply of food by producing fertilisers that help farmers to increase crop output. Farmers and consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of the potential hazards of putting fertilisers that contain toxic heavy metals on crop-producing fields. Making sure their customers can make informed decisions about what they put in the soil to grow food is what PhosAgro and other members of the Safer Phosphates alliance aim to achieve.

Another solution could be to expand reliance on plant genome editing.

This procedure makes it possible to alter DNA in a crop or stock animal’s genome to improve such factors as nutrition or resistance to pests or illness. As the Economist projects, gene editing could boost farmers’ profits in the short term  by cutting costs and increasing yields, while lowering prices and increasing availability for consumers. In the longer run, it is likely to decrease environmental pressure on such resources as soil and water.

Towards agricultural resilience

Advancements in agriculture require close coordination among the industry’s leaders, as well as transnational organizations and local governments. Although there is no shortage of advanced technological solutions and funding, there are multiple governments demonstrating lack of political will to make the transition towards sustainable agriculture.

There is no simple solution to this problem. But the only way to advance agricultural efficiencies in places that are at highest risk of food insecurity is by promoting science-based criteria that clearly define which measures will expand availability and quality of output.

Local populations and political leaders in the developing world could reap the benefits of advanced agricultural production by using fertilisers that are free of heavy metals and other trace elements, or by farming genetically engineered crops that are more resistant compared to their original counterparts. This would ultimately allow farmers to grow crops in the most productive manner for the benefit of their communities and the world at large.

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