British consumers were put out in February this year when supermarkets temporarily began rationing lettuce and zucchini after flash flooding and snow wiped out crops in Spain.
It was a minor inconvenience but one which should fill us with unease. Such breakdowns in the food supply may be a harbinger of things to come and should be shaking the rich world out of its complacency when it comes to food.
A staggering 30 per cent of global food production is wasted, much of it in the well-fed Western world. Yet rising populations and shifting preferences towards more meat consumption internationally, mean farmers need to virtually double food calorie production from 2005 levels if we are to feed the world come 2050.
There is a strong sense in Western societies that we have lost our respect for the food we eat. Over the past twenty or so years we have developed a mindset that food is just another expendable commodity. Like electricity, we just mindlessly consume it until there is a shortage, or a major price rise, or both. Only then is at least some thought given to future supplies and sustainability.
Overconsumption of energy-rich foods has resulted in over 1 billion people worldwide suffering from obesity and associated metabolic diseases, even as 1 billion people go to bed hungry every day and around 2 billion suffer from malnutrition. The image of crops rotting in fields due to poor infrastructure in the developing world will be familiar to many, but when it comes to food ‘rotting in the fridge’, people in North America and Oceania top the world, wasting around 100kg of food every year each.
Climate change compounds food insecurity
In contrast food is highly respected in the developing world. This different perspective has a number of underlying causes but an overriding one is that many in the developing world are simply uncertain as to where their next meal is coming from. Over 70 per cent of all food consumed worldwide comes from smallholder farmers in developing countries, and those small, family farms are subject to the increasing challenges of land and soil degradation, reduced water availability, increasing costs for energy-rich inputs, poor infrastructure and often poor policy support.
Climate change will multiply these challenges, and is already significantly impacting food production systems in key food-producing regions of the world.
The current food security challenge is therefore already formidable with our existing population, but global population is still growing at around 150 people per minute. At the same time prime farmland is being lost to urbanisation and degradation at over two hectares per minute and available water per person is reducing in key catchments. Agriculture already accounts for around 70 per cent of global freshwater withdrawals and 45 per cent of food crop production is dependent on irrigation. And there is already rapidly increasing competition for that water from cities. Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin is a microcosm of the problem, but in other parts of the world it is far more serious.
Added to these natural resources challenges is the widespread use of nitrogen fertilisers to increase the productivity of farming systems globally. Nitrogen from fertiliser now accounts for more than half of the protein in human diets. In other words, our food security depends on it. And yet the most commonly used nitrogen fertiliser, urea, is a product of fossil fuel requiring around four barrels of oil equivalent to produce 1 tonne of urea. Yet half of this fertiliser is lost to the environment as run-off or greenhouse gasses, causing degradation of waterways, climate change and public health. This is in a world that is trying to lessen its use and dependence on non-renewable energy sources.
This confluence of pressures on food production systems, multiplied by climate change are the elements of a ‘perfect storm’ that requires urgent, strategic and long-term investment to help farmers everywhere, including here in Australia.
Meanwhile, food insecurity due to severe drought and conflicts has seen the need for global emergency food assistance reach unprecedented levels. Famine now threatens four countries simultaneously – South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. Food crises can compound and create political crises.
The most recent example is provided by Syria, where three years of drought, the consequential shortage of food and the failure of government to respond adequately led to mass migration to the cities. Poverty and unemployment provide a fertile breeding ground for discontent and its exploitation by extremist groups, leading to civil war and mass emigration.
A complacent attitude to food security clearly has implications beyond our immediate future and current nutrition needs.
Waste not, want not
Yet despite all this, the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude seems to be the mindset not only for consumers, but also for most governments. Investments by government in the agricultural sector have not only markedly decreased over recent decades, but have also fallen prey to the ‘short-termism’ that now pervades many political arenas, both near and far. But long-term sustainability issues require long-term thinking, patient investments and recognition that we can’t afford to waste food and resources.
What would it mean to future food security globally if we could sharply reduce the more than 30 per cent of food that is currently wasted? Various studies have shown that the results could be startling. If we could cut our wastage in the western world – where the majority of losses arise at the consumption end of the value chain – this could have substantial benefits for global food security. The 2050 target for increased food production could be reduced from a UN-projected 70 per cent down to a 30 to 50 per cent increase.
So at a time when “large” portions are now the new “regular”, we need to be choosing the “small” option, both for our own health and the health of everyone else.
Professor Timothy Reeves presented a free public lecture on “The ‘Grand Challenges’ for Agriculture and Future Food and Nutritional Security” at the University of Melbourne on 23 March 2017. You can listen to a recording here.
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