FOLLOW THE FOOD
Why we still haven’t solved global food insecurity
BY WILLIAM PARK
The number of people living in food insecurity grows every year
And the pandemic has made the problem worse
But is it possible to give everyone access to the food they need?
The pandemic dealt the food industry multiple blows, from grounded aircraft and border closures preventing produce from reaching markets to migrant labourers who are relied upon for harvests remaining at home. While these problems led to uncertainty – and in some cases temporary shortages – in the global food supplies we rely upon, the problem of food insecurity had already been on the rise around the world, with particular problems in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
There are multiple ways to measure food insecurity – ensuring a reliable supply of food straddles farming, transportation, manufacturing, economics, nutrition and social issues, among others. But the definition set at the 1996 World Food Summit says that “[food security is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.
It is an ambitious target. Andrew D Jones, a researcher at the climate and ecosystem sciences division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and his co-authors highlight the importance of “at all times” in the WFS definition, saying that it is often overlooked. Food security can come and go seasonally “as a result of irregular shocks such as weather events, deaths, or regional conflicts”, they write in an article for a journal published by the American Society for Nutrition. Covid-19 was one such shock, but not the only one.
Exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, 768 million people (or 10% of the world’s population) faced hunger in 2020. The number of people who consume fewer calories than they need has risen by about 118 million compared to 2019, after remaining stable for the five previous years, and having dropped from about 870 million in 2012.
Many more people live only just above the hunger line. About 2.37 billion people, by the FAO’s measure, did not have access to adequate food in 2020 and 928 million of them were severely food insecure. About half of these people live in Asia, another one-third in Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean following.
Latin America and the Caribbean is the fastest-growing region for people who cannot afford or access adequate, nutritious food. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of people unable to access a healthy diet rose 8.4%.
But even within the heart of some of the most advanced countries in the world there are communities living in “food deserts” who cannot afford or access adequate, nutritious food. In North America and Europe, there were estimated to be 17.3 million people who could not afford a healthy diet in 2019.
For example, the state of Mississippi is one of the most food insecure in the US. Around 74% of school children in Mississippi are eligible for free or subsidised lunches.
At the current rate, the world will miss the UN’s sustainable development goal of reaching zero world hunger by 2030. There will still be 660 million people living in hunger then.
By any of these measures, not enough people have access to the food they need. What makes a nation food insecure? And how can innovations make some of those countries more resilient?”
The natural resources available to that nation are one factor which can protect against food insecurity.
In absolute terms, the Seychelles is the country with the least available arable land for which the World Bank holds data, at 1.5 sq km (0.6 sq miles) in total. This is followed by Palau with 3 sq km (1.1 sq miles), Singapore with 5.6 sq km (2.1 sq miles) and Andorra with 8.3 sq km (3.2 sq miles) – which accounts for about 40% of its land area. When you factor in how many people live in each country, Hong Kong joins this group of space-limited nations. Though it has 300 sq km (11.5 sq miles) of land available, when it is calculated per capita, this is almost nothing.
For comparison, the UK has a little over 60,000 sq km (23,166 sq miles) of arable land, Germany 117,000 sq km (45,173 sq miles) and France 181,000 sq km (69,884 sq miles). The US tops the list with 1.57 million sq km (608,883 sq miles), closely followed by India (1.56 million sq km/602,319sq miles) and Russia (1.22 million sq km/471,044 sq miles).
What do you do if you don’t have space? Some small, densely-populated countries like Singapore and Hong Kong would face an uphill struggle if they were to try to be entirely self-sufficient. They instead have to import the bulk of their food from elsewhere, which means they are more vulnerable to problems that might disrupt supplies. But innovations in indoor farming techniques might challenge why we use available arable land as a measure of food security.
Because crops can be layered on top of one another, taking up less space, and because the plants grow faster, an indoor farm can be on average 300 to 400 times more productive than field farming, co-founder of US-based 80 Acres’ farm Mike Zelkind told the BBC in 2020.
Indoor farms like Farm66 and Sustenir, and shipping container farm MoVertical, are now based in Singapore and Hong Kong. The benefit of shipping-container indoor farms is that they can be moved around as needed. While wealthier nations might first develop these technologies, they could find themselves in less food secure countries as humanitarian aid.
To-date, however, indoor farms and container ship farms have been limited to growing leafy salads, herbs and small fruits and veg like strawberries and tomatoes – tasty, and useful for a healthy diet, but low in terms of biomass produced. There are efforts, though, to expand the kind of produce that can be grown in this way.
For example, one company in Singapore is creating raw cow’s milk from mammary cells grown in a lab which are then stimulated to produce milk in a bioreactor. Not only is this a green alternative, as the dairy industry contributes 4% of the total human greenhouse gas emissions, but it can be done with far less space. Max Rye, chief strategist at TurtleTree Labs, the company behind the technology, suggests it could alleviate food insecurity in areas affected by conflict or natural disasters. Once the technology has been developed, the bioreactors could be dropped into a humanitarian site and used to create milk on demand.
But countries with a lot of arable land are not necessarily more food secure than those with less. Not all land has equal agricultural value. What do you do if you have space, but you don’t have the right climate? In some desert-covered countries, another type of soil-less farming is being developed. In Jordan, for example, where only 11.5% of land area is usable for agriculture, the Sahara Forest Project has built seawater greenhouses in which to grow food. Similar projects run in Somalia and Australia.
Qatar has also set itself the target of being self-sustaining, and has implemented a number of sustainability initiatives to encourage greenhouse growing. Starting with 34 0.1 sq km vegetable greenhouses, a coalition of indoor farms are now aiming to install one sq km (0.4 sq miles) of hydroponic greenhouses by the end of 2021. At the end of 2020, the government also launched a guarantee programme, signing pre-contracts to buy local produce from farmers.
Even countries with adequate land and suitable climate can find themselves struggling with food insecurity. “It’s not necessarily about how much land is available, but who has access,” says Lindsey Carte, a professor of geography at the Universidad de la Frontera in Chile. “If all the producers are large landholders that is a problem in low-income countries.”
Those large landholders might only produce cash crops, which in the case of Latin America could be tobacco, coffee, chocolate, peanuts, soy or exotic fruits for foreign markets like pineapples or papaya. Some of that produce might be sold locally, but most will be shipped abroad where it will fetch a higher price.
In a country like Nicaragua, one of the poorest in Central America, Carte says that rural people practice share-cropping. In some cases, the sharecroppers will take a cut of the produce from the field, but in other cases they might work on large farms in exchange for a small strip of land on which they can plant their own crops. They could work on a cash crop like tobacco, but around the plantation there might be strips of vegetables and corn which is what they keep for themselves. This can be enough to support most of a family’s diet, with a few extra purchases here and there.
This is one reason that measuring the food produced in a country is an imperfect way of assessing food security, says Carte. While cash crops support the economy, the resilience of a nation might also depend on whether citizens can grow food for themselves. About 18% of all land is indigenous and community-owned and Carte argues that food insecure citizens can benefit by protecting their access to land.
Rural farmers in developing countries also have the option to migrate elsewhere for the short term to earn more money, and return to their farms seasonally. Unlike with permanent migration, this kind of “subsistence migration” means they don’t have to give up their rights as a sharecropper in exchange for a better salary.
In Nicaragua, for example, where 40% of the population live rurally, a farmer can earn more money in El Salvador or Costa Rica working for larger landholders. “But in the pandemic, many migrants have returned home because of bad economies or restrictions on mobility, so lose that income,” says Carte. “So losing access to earnings from abroad might be causing more food insecurity in these rural spaces.”
In Laos, communal farming goes one step further. Local communities co-produce everything, says Diana Suhardiman, a Laos specialist at the International Water Management Institute. In the uplands, one or two crops of rice might be grown by a community, and replaced later in the season by a cash crop like teak, tea or coffee to be sold for savings. Laos is a communist country, so land cannot be bought by citizens, but rights can be bought for a period of time. Though since 2010, there has been an increase in communal land being turned over into commercial property, putting the squeeze on citizens.
“We are expecting that they will have less and less access to land,” says Suhardiman. “When farmers lose access to land, some will try to find farm work elsewhere and use the money earned to purchase food. This increases vulnerability – you are still food secure but are you robust to market changes?”
Suhardiman gives the example of rubber tree farmers who were left with worthless crops after a 2011 latex price crash, whose only choice was to burn their crop and use the land for something else. The Laos agricultural market is very closely tied to China, she says, so fluctuations in that larger market can have very significant effects in the far smaller Laos.
Another contributor to food insecurity in developing nations is the amount of produce that goes to waste. About half of the food produced in Africa goes to waste or is undervalued because it is sold in poor condition.
Lake Victoria, in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, is the world’s largest inland fishery, supporting 40 million people who catch fish like tilapia. In the hot climate, the fish degrades, becoming inedible unless it is smoked. Local fishers have a choice between trying to sell it fresh quickly, and risk it being wasted, or smoking it and selling it for a lower price, as the texture is less desirable.
Several charities and nonprofits, including the World Bank, have tried to solve this issue by installing freezers connected to solar-powered microgrids in which the fish can be frozen at the lakeside. The fish can then be packed in cheap, reusable cool boxes and shipped to markets further afield where they fetch a better price.
Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, only 3% of agricultural produce is refrigerated when it leaves the farm. The first buyer of a farmer’s produce could be another small business, who load the food into trucks and take it to market. Startups Coldbox Store in Nigeria and SokoFresh in Kenya, have launched solar-powered refrigerated rooms available to use at the marketplace. By making freezing accessible, one of the final links in the chain of food production could be tightened.
The changing climate throws up more than logistical challenges for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The impact of pests, disease, floods and droughts will all increase under current climate change predictions. Single disastrous events can wipe out entire crops and leave large populations facing food insecurity without outside help.
At the end of 2019, swarms of locusts destroyed crops in Kenya, before spreading over Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia and Eritrea, then on to India, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Insects already consume 5-20% of grain crops, but a model accounting for the impact of climate change on the three most important crops (maize, rice and wheat) predicts this could rise by 10-25% per degree C of warming.
The locust numbers might fall without the need for human intervention. Outbreaks of pests can go through booms and busts as they multiply, spread, and then run out of their food supply. But the potential damage they could do before their numbers decline is huge. A swarm of 80 million, which could cover as little as one sq km (0.3 sq miles), can eat the equivalent of 35,000 people’s daily food. By March 2021, 1.8 million litres of pesticides had been sprayed over 17,600 sq km (6,800 sq miles) at a cost of $118m (£84.5m) in an attempt to deal with the problem. But this has raised concerns about the wider affect this will have on the environment and human health.
Instead, many researchers are looking at alternative ways of preventing locust swarms with the help of satellite and weather data, along with drones equipped with thermal cameras, to help predict where problems might emerge. Scientists at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi have been experimenting with a chemical produced by fungi that can kill locusts without harming other insects and are trying pheromones that can disrupt swarms. Others are looking to technical solutions, such as electrified grids that can zap the insects before they can swarm. Researchers in China recently also identified a pheromone that is responsible for causing locusts to aggregate into large groups, raising hopes it can be used as a bait for traps or can be disrupted to prevent swarms.
Diseases also cost vast sums in lost harvests and extra chemicals. For the past decade, several blights have been affecting arabica coffee crops in Latin America and beyond. As much as 60% of wild varieties of coffee are now considered endangered, which has an impact on the varieties that we grow as crops.
Wild species act as genetic resource from which botanists can borrow DNA to develop new crop varieties. The arabica bean attracts a higher price than the robusta cultivar, but is now considered endangered, too. Adding to this pressure, coffee-suitable growing areas will reduce by 88% in Latin America by 2050, meaning there is even more pressure to develop new varities that can grow in hotter or dryer conditions. The wild gene bank might be essential to be able to do that.
Another crop that has struggled with disease in recent years is the banana. The TR4 banana pandemic is destroying crops of the world’s most popular variety – the Cavendish – across the world from Latin and South America, to Africa and Australia. If farmers can identify the disease, an early warning might prevent it from being transmitted further. One prototype technology being trialled in Africa uses machine learning to analyse images from mobile phones, drones and satellites to identify the presence and threat level of six banana diseases. The technology is app-based, so anyone can check and report warning signs, uploading their data to the cloud to form a map of the diseases spread.
Protecting the crops that are most familiar to us, like coffee and bananas, might have the net benefit of protecting the wild species that they are derived from, securing their long-term survival. But reducing the gap between those living in food security and insecurity will require solving problems throughout the food chain – wasting less, growing more and protecting the rights of farmers. There is still much that could improve food security which is far removed from farmers’ jurisdiction – racial, ethnic and income inequalities all play a part, too.
As food insecurity is increasing around the world, the solution might be to work with smallholder farmers using traditional techniques, as well as increasing productivity and reducing margins. With so much arable land still managed by communities and smallholders, they play a key role in sustainably managing the world’s food supply.
- Pictures (in order of use): Guillem Sartorio/Getty Images, Getty Images, Getty Images, Guillem Sartorio/Getty Images, Anthony Wallace/Getty Images, Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images, Getty Images, Alberto Buzzola/Getty Images, Getty Images, Menahem Kahana/Getty Images, Yasuyoshi Chiba/Getty Images
- Words: William Park
- Editor: Richard Gray
go to source for nice illustrations….