Food security – a distribution, growth or technological problem? by Felix von Geyer

Increasing population growth of 80 million people per year while increased affluence is moving three billion people further up the food chain is placing increased pressure on food security, said Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Only the previous week at the Food Security conference hosted annually by Montreal’s McGill University, two divided camps were clearly in evidence between those in favour of increased technological uptake in global food production being marginalized by many who called for a return to ecosystem restoral to feed the world. Back in the 1980’s Amartya Sen advocated that food availability was less of a problem than its distribution, with acquirement undermined by people’s lack of ‘entitlement’ or income to buy food.

However, with population growth and overdrafting of water from finite or fossil aquifers, hundreds of millions of people in China, India and the US are currently being sustained through crops that are rapidly depleting non-renewable water sources such as overpumping in the North China Plains’ aquifer that Brown stated is reducing at the rate of ten feet per year. Eighty per cent of India’s grain land is similarly irrigated from groundwater from its 26 million irrigation wells, many of which are starting to run dry. The World Bank predicted 190 million Indians are being fed through overpumping of non-renewable water, said Brown who stated that the world has reached Peak Water, where water consumption is outstripping the renewable supply of water.

Brown also pointed to climate change and the fact that 40 per cent of the world’s grain is now produced in countries facing photosynthesis issues and limits in addition to other nutrient and moisture constraints through being exposed to too many hot days. Photosynthesis typically breaks down at temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius.

Furthermore, increased urbanization, for example 80 per cent of Americans live in cities, is threatening the nutrient cycle said Brown, who pointed to the example that human waste now ends up in a river or the ocean rather than back on the land.

Improved water productivity and meshing population growth with water and land policy are essential to addressing the food security issues ahead of us, according to Brown who added that improved education was also key to reducing population growth. Water productivity would be best improved if there was a price on it, suggested Brown.

However, Brown was ambivalent about the future role of technology. “Scientists have used traditional technology to improve yields before biotechnology came along. Biotech has no single advance that has raised yields that traditional plant breeding has not achieved,” said Brown.

Yet Marco Ferroni, Executive Director of Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture told a McGill University public lecture that providing food security requires an end to conventional approaches; that farmers want genetics and plant breeding technology, soil fertility solutions, crop protection and irrigation and mechanization, all of which come under the general umbrella of technology. Combined with technological solutions, farmers also need services such as organization, property rights, financial services, connectivity and insurance as well as access to markets, transportation and storage. As many of the world’s 500 million small-scale farmers are also subsistence farmers tilling an average of 2 hectares, the need to scale-up agriculture is something they also want and need to transcend their existence from being subsistence farmers.

Annette Desmarais from the University of Manitoba in the heart of Canada’s prairies whose own grain production is predominantly owned by Cargill and Glencore, pointed to September’s report from the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development entitled ‘Wake Up Before It’s Too Late’.

The UNCTAD report called for developing and developed countries to make a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to a ‘truly ecological intensification’ approach requiring a rapid shift from conventional, monoculture-based industrial production that was highly dependent on external inputs and instead adopt ‘mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems’ that could considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. “We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management,” said the report where farmers are not only producers of agricultural goods, but managers of “an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services” that would include water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation.

However, as 3 billion people moving through the food chain start to eat increasingly more meat, growing the feedstock for this will also place further stress on agricultural and water productivity in addition to an extra 80 million more mouths to feed per year. It may only be a matter of time before the issue of availability supercedes arguments over distribution but an intelligent and transparent debate over the role, implementation and implications of technology is long overdue.