Commentary: Going down the wrong road
In a news release that wasn’t very new, a major global study released last week by the United Nations and several partner organizations concluded that the world’s population will need 70 percent more food calories by the midpoint of the 21st century to feed the more than 9.6 billion people expected to be alive in 2050.
The target date is not that far away; however, the increase in edible calories most assuredly is.
How to achieve this monumental expansion of food production? Through improvements in the way people produce and consume food, according to the report.
“Over the next several decades, the world faces a grand challenge and opportunity at the intersection of food security, development and the environment,” said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, which produced the report in conjunction with UN agencies and the World Bank.
The crisis will be especially severe in certain areas of the world, the WRI report predicted. Given currently projected population growth, for example, sub-Saharan Africa will need to more than triple its crop production by 2050 to provide adequate per-capita nourishment.
“To meet human needs, we must close the 70 percent gap between the food we will need and the food available today,” Steer said. “But we must do so in a way that creates opportunities for the rural poor, limits clearing-cutting of forests and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.”
He had me, then he lost me.
The report, titled, “World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future,” acknowledged that increasing food crop and livestock productivity on the world’s existing agricultural land is critical to preserving forests and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But later in the report, the researchers said that it is “unlikely” the food gap could be addressed with yield increases alone.
For example: Although the world harvest of what the UN calls “cereals and coarse grains” — corn, wheat and rice — increased by 8.4 percent in 2013 versus 2012, that is most likely a one-time spike. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, over the last decade (from 2002 to 2102) the average annual increase in global grain production has been only slightly more than 2 percent.
That tepid rate of growth won’t get the job done.
On multiple fronts
Thus the report included recommendations that focused not just on yield but also on reducing food loss and waste, improving agricultural practices (whatever that means) and following other “climate-smart” guidelines, which means — wait for it — “reducing excessive demand for animal products.”
You knew that was coming.
“Feeding a growing population requires working on several fronts at the same time,” said Juergen Voegele, World Bank Director for Agriculture and Environmental Services. “Applying the principles of climate-smart agriculture across landscapes — crops, livestock, forests and fisheries — has the potential to sustainably increase food security, enhance resilience and reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.”
That statement is your basic bureaucratic claptrap, the kind of jargon-ese that sounds impressive but actually says next to nothing. For all the high-minded language, “climate-smart agriculture basically comes down to one item: raise fewer livestock and somehow convince several billion people to cut back on the animal foods they crave.
Only you won’t hear UN officials or any other politicians actually acknowledging that near-impossibility of getting the world to go veggie, nor any practical template for replacing the calories from meat and dairy with plant-based foods.
Here’s Exhibit A: Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General, told a global conference on the sustainable agriculture earlier this month that feeding the world will require “a multi-faceted process” involving agroforestry, crop diversification and other practical measures related to meeting the challenge of climate change.
“Agriculture is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, farmers worldwide are increasingly feeling the effects of a warming climate,” Ban said in a message to the Third Global Conference on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security and Climate Change in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“The answer to the interconnected problems [of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change] lies in climate-smart agriculture,” Ban said.
At least he’s got the talking point down pat.
Here’s what’s really needed, and it is indeed a three-pronged approach: First, continued emphasis on scientific and technical progress in agriculture, driven by robust funding for both public and private research.
Second, and this is where the UN ought to focus, dissemination of basic farming technology — irrigation systems, fertilizers, modern planting and harvesting equipment — throughout the resource-poor areas of the world. There are huge gains to be made simply by elevating subsistence agriculture to the level of most modern farms.
Finally, biotechnology must be re-focused not just on commercial applications such as herbicide resistance but also on developing improved survivability, higher yields and enhanced nutrition.
Instead of pounding away at livestock producers and pretending that the world’s going vegetarian, the UN and its partners ought to focus on modernizing farming and expanding the potential of genetic engineering.
That’s the only way that 9.6 billion people are going to get enough to eat.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.