By Henrylito D. Tacio
Malthusian fears that population growth will outstrip food supplies have been widely dismissed as food production kept well ahead of growing human numbers in the last half century. But in recent years, experts are sounding the alarm of a possible food crisis. The reasons: climate change, forest denudation, land degradation, water shortage, livestock extinction, and destruction of coastal ecosystems.
The root cause of these problems: the ever burgeoning population. Between 1980 and 2000, global population rose from 4.4 billion to 6.1 billion and food production increased 50 percent. By 2050, the population is expected to reach 9 billion.
To keep up with the growth in human population, more food will have to be produced around the world over the next 50 years than has been during the past 10,000 years combined, said the participants of the recent UN-backed forum in Iceland on sustainable development.
At the 1996 World Food Summit political leaders from 186 countries pledged to halve the number of hungry people in the world by the year 2015. At that time, about 800 million people were reported to suffer from under-nourishment. Today, latest estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggest that there are 854 million people who do not get enough to eat everyday. “Far from decreasing, the number of hungry people in the world is currently increasing,” said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.
For young children, the lack of food can be perilous since it retards their physical and mental development and threatens their very survival. In fact, some 5.6 million children die from hunger-related illness every year before their fifth birthday.
“This is unacceptable,” deplored Jean Ziegler, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. “In a world overflowing with riches, hunger is inevitable. It is a violation of human rights. The right to food is a human right that protects the right of all human beings to live in dignity, free from hunger.”
Climate Change and Hunger
Hunger is even more inevitable as the world faces the threats of climate change. Experts have agreed that abnormal changes in air temperature and rainfall and the increasing frequency and intensity of drought and floods have long-term implications for the viability and productivity of world agro-ecosystems.
“Agriculture is the sector most affected by changes in climate patterns and will be increasingly vulnerable in the future,” said FAO in a press statement. “Especially at risk are developing countries, which are highly dependent on agriculture and have fewer resources and options to combat damage from climate change.”
Farming is most dependent on stable climate. “The most serious threats will not be occasional severe drought or heat wave but subtle temperature shifts during key periods in the crop’s life cycle, as these are most disruptive to plants bred for optimal climatic conditions,” wrote Danielle Nierenberg and Brian Halweil in a Worldwatch report.
In Asia, plant scientists have found that rising temperatures may reduce grain yields in the tropics by as much as 30 percent over the next 50 years.
Where have all our forests gone?
“The best friend of earth of man is the tree,” Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote. “When we use the tree respectfully and economically, we have one of the greatest resources on the earth.” Forests and trees offer a direct contribution to food supply and to nutritional well-being: provide a source of income necessary to purchase food; give protection to the resource base upon which food production depends; and provide a source of fuelwood to cook food.
Tropical forests have been helping agriculture. Wild tropical relatives of the common peanut were used to improve the resistance of the leaf spot, which benefited modern agriculture. In the 1960s, two species of wild green tomato from Peru contributed genes worth of millions of dollars to the tomato processing industries. The rainforest is the host to some 2,500 species of fruits fit for human consumption. Only a few – banana, grapefruit, and pineapple – have been commercialized.
The bad news is that forests are fast disappearing at alarming rate. The FAO’s State of the World’s Forests 2007 reported that between 1990 to 2005, the world lost 3 per cent of its total forest area, an average decrease of some 0.2 per cent per year. Net forest loss is 7.3 million hectares per year or 20,000 hectares per day, equivalent to an area twice the size of Paris.
The denudation of the ecologically-fragile forests is causing erosion of the most valuable source of farming — topsoil. The world loses the equivalent of five to seven million hectares of farmland through erosion each year. This is equivalent to the land area of Belgium and the Netherlands combined. A recent study by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that approximately 30 per cent of the world’s arable crop land has been abandoned because of severe soil erosion in the last 40 years.
It takes 200 to 1,000 years to form 2.5 centimeters of rich topsoil. But on the average, farmlands are losing 2.5 centimeters of topsoil every 16 years, or 17 times faster than it can be replaced. “Soil erosion is any nation’s enemy – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” said Harold R. Watson, Ramon Magsaysay award-winning soil scientist. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”
Some 40 percent of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded. Among the worst affected regions are Central America, where 75 percent of land is infertile, Africa, where a fifth of soil is degraded, and Asia, where 11 percent is unsuitable for farming.
In the past, water – in the form of irrigation – had been a key factor in enabling the world to increase food production. Since Asia’s agricultural revolution, the amount of land under irrigation has tripled. Today, about 40 percent of the world’s food comes from the 18 percent of cropland that gets irrigation water.
But in most parts of the world, rivers are now running dry. “The Ganges and the Yellow River no longer flow,” said Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the UN’s Millennium Project. “There is so much silting up and water extraction upstream they are pretty stagnant.”
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all water used globally, as much as 90 percent in many developing countries. To keep pace with the growing demand for food, it is estimated that 14 percent more freshwater will need to be withdrawn for agricultural purposes in the next 30 years.
Take the case of rice, the staple cereal of nearly half the world’s total population. Current rice production systems consume a high amount of water. It takes about 3,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice. Irrigated non-agriculture areas, which provide 75% of total Asian rice production, consume 50% of all freshwater diversions.
“This profligate usage of water in irrigated rice production is unsustainable, given the increasing demand for freshwater due to growth in rice demand and growing competition from other sectors,” said Tumurdavaa Bayarsaihan, a senior agricultural economist at the Manila-based Asian Development Bank.
Nearly two billion people globally rely on livestock to meet part or all of their daily needs. “Livestock now meet 30 percent of total human needs for food and agricultural production, converting low-quality biomass, such as corn stalks and other crop residues, into high-quality milk and meat,” wrote Danielle Nierenberg in another Worldwatch report.
In the coming years, meat consumption is expected to rise. The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that by 2020, people in developing countries will consumer more than 36 kilograms of meat per person, twice as much as in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, important breeds of livestock are also fast disappearing. The Criolla Mora sheep, which can be traced back in 1548, are used for meat and wool and they are resistant to endoparasite infestation. Scientists are now uncertain how many remain – anywhere from 100 to 1,000 live in the Colombian highlands.
According to FAO’s State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources report, at least one livestock breed a month has become extinct over the past seven years. Around 20 percent of the world’s breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry are currently at risk of extinction. “Wise management of the world’s animal genetic resources is of ever greater importance,” said FAO Assistant Director-General Alexander Muller.
Jose Esquinas-Alcazar, Secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, considers genetic resources as “the basis of food security.” He compares the thousands of different breeds of crops and livestock to LEGO blocks: “Just as children a variety of different size and color blocks to build a building or castle, we also need all the little pieces of genetic diversity in agriculture to build food security.”
“Last wild meal”
Fish are the “last wild meal” in the human diet. For nearly one billion, mostly in Asia, fish supply 30 percent of protein; worldwide, the figure is just six percent. However, the world’s fish and seafood populations are in deep trouble.
In an analysis of scientific data going back to the 1960s and historical records over a thousand years, the researchers found that marine biodiversity — the variety of ocean fish, shellfish, birds, plants and micro-organisms — has declined dramatically, with 29 percent of species already in collapse.
“Species have been disappearing” faster and faster, deplored lead author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. “If the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime.” “Collapse” is defined as the catch of a species dropping by 90 percent.
When ocean species collapse, it makes the ocean itself weaker and less able to recover from shocks like global climate change, Worm said. The decline in marine biodiversity is largely due to overfishing and destruction of habitat. Depleted coastal ecosystems are vulnerable to invasive species, disease outbreaks, coastal flooding and noxious algae blooms.
One coastal ecosystem that has been in the news lately is the destruction of coral reefs. Because of their structure, they serve as shelter to fishes and shell fishes. As fishing grounds, they are thought to be 10 to 100 times as productive per unit area as the open sea.
Most of the reefs are found in the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and South Pacific. They also thrive where warm current are found off Florida, Bermuda, southern Japan and Australia. The United Nations has found close to a third of the world’s corals have disappeared, and 60 percent are expected to be lost by 2030.
Threat of biofuels
The threat of a food crisis is exacerbated by fears over energy security, with many countries now opting to plant biofuels crops in place of traditional crops. India, for instance, has pledged to meet 10 percent of its vehicle fuel needs with biofuels.
As a result of this new trend, food prices have been escalating. In the United States, for example, corn prices have doubled over the last year. In Mexico, where most people eat corn, the price of tortillas is up by 60 percent. The soaring use of corn as the feedstock for fuel ethanol, according to a Bloomberg analysis, “is creating unintended consequences throughout the global food chain.”
Corn is just one of the six top cereal crops in the world, along with rice, wheat, oats, sorghum, and barley. All are good sources of ethanol, a clean-burning, high-octane alcohol. “If the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will move it into the energy economy,” observes Lester R. Brown, president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute. “As the price of the oil climbs, so will the price of food.”
Is there a solution in sight?
According to FAO, only investment in agriculture – together with support for education and health—will turn this situation around. “Agriculture may have become a minor player in many industrialized economies, but it must play a starring role on the world stage if we are to bring down the curtain on hunger,” it said.
Many studies have shown how agricultural growth reduces poverty and hunger. For example, the only group of countries to reduce hunger during the 1990s was the group in which the agriculture sector grew. FAO, looking back at the figures for the last 30 years, found that “those countries that have invested and continue to invest most in agriculture now experience the lowest levels of undernourishment.”
There is also much talk today of sustainable agriculture. This describes systems of food production where farmers work with nature, rather than chafe against it. Instead of blitzing micro-organisms with pesticides, they use integrated pest management (IPM), and encourage beneficial insects at the expense of pest species. Rather than relying on artificial fertilisers to maintain fertility, farmers rotate their crops, use animal manures and plant crops which can be used as green manure.
“If we can improve agricultural practices across the board, we can dramatically increase our food production from existing lands, without to clear more or put more pressure on soils. Simple things like good crop rotation, sowing at the right time of the year, basic weed control, are what is needed. They’re very well known but not always used,” said Andrew Campbell, an Australian environmental consultant.
Sustainable agriculture emphasises the importance of management over technology, and relies heavily on farmers’ participation in the decision-making process, and equitable access to local resources. Among the most comprehensive analyses of sustainable agriculture have been those done by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). These suggest that in many countries where it is practised crop yields have increased dramatically, as have local incomes. This is highly significant, as malnutrition is often the scourge of remote rural areas.
There is little doubt that sustainable agriculture – as defined here and practised as far afield as Honduras, the Philippines, Zimbabwe and Mali – can bring considerable benefits to many parts of the world, but sustainable agriculture alone will not be enough to ensure the food security of the growing numbers of rural poor. As IIED’s John Thompson suggests, pricing policy, credit systems, gender discrimination and policies which neglect the poor all need to be tackled if the poor are to get a better deal.
More contentious – for many environmentalists, at least – is the call for a “doubly green” revolution, a phrase coined by Gordon Conway of the Rockefeller Foundation. His thesis is this. If we are to feed the world in the 21st century and avoid future economic and civil dislocation, we need a new kind of agriculture – one which is doubly green, where the conservation of resources and the production of large quantities of food are not inimical. Conway believes we need to design new and better plants and animals, and use biotechnology to do so; we need to develop non-polluting alternatives to inorganic fertilisers, to improve soil quality, to enhance opportunities for the rural poor, especially for women, and to forge equitable partnerships between researchers and farmers.
Biotechnology: boon or bane?
The issue of genetically modified organisms – GMOs – has proved highly contentious, especially in the developed world (where, as a rule, there are no food shortages and little malnutrition, other than the variety which stems from overeating). Advocates of biotechnology point to its many possible benefits. In the future scientists may develop GMOs which lead to a dramatic reduction in the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Recently scientists developed a genetically modified strain of rice, golden rice, which contains vitamin A and extra iron, and a strain of vitamin A-rich sweet potato acceptable in sub-Saharan Africa. Every year over a million children die of vitamin A-related diseases: golden rice could prevent such deaths. Conway believes that the tools of biotechnology are essential if crop yields are to be raised.
Opponents of GMOs, on the other hand, believe that the risks are too great. They fear that gene transfer to wild relatives of genetically modified crops may give rise to super weeds, and they are also concerned about the impact of GMOs on human health. They see the introduction of GMOs, which are largely developed and sold by a handful of multinational corporations, as further evidence of the industrialisation of agriculture, and a further nail in the coffin of small farmers. Dr. Peter Wills, a theoretical biologist at Auckland University, points out, “By transferring genes across species barriers which have existed for eons, we risk breaching natural thresholds against unexpected biological processes.”
Ultimately, it is the nature of society, as much as science, which will determine whether the world can adequately feed all its inhabitants in the future. The poor need not only better access to food, but the means to buy it. Above all, this means raising rural incomes, and this requires fairer trading relationships. At present the economic policies of the rich world, particularly when it comes to subsidising and protecting its own agricultural industry, discriminate against farmers in many other parts of the world. At the same time many developing world governments keep food prices artificially low and fail to invest in the rural economy. By doing so, they discriminate against small farmers. Political reforms will count for just as much as agricultural innovation in the war on hunger. — ###