Feeding our fears

Why the language of crisis is limiting how we address global food security.

Fiona McKenzie
John Williams

Environment & energy, Food & water | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

29 April 2015

The world already produces more than enough food for everyone, but it is not distributed equitably or efficiently.

A language of crisis and inevitability colours the food security debate.

To meet the anticipated increase in global food demand out to 2050, the world needs to produce more food. Seeing this challenge as a crisis of supply can lead us to believe we have no choice in how we intensify agricultural production. But the reality is, the world has choices.

And we need to be honest about them.

We may hope to see the world produce more food with limited land and water, using less energy, fertiliser and pesticides, and with less environmental impacts, but that is not the trajectory we are on.

If we want to stay within the safe operating space of the planet we will have to make the conscious choice to do so. It is unlikely these choices will be made for us through crisis or biophysical constraints. In our race to produce more, there is little to stop us, in the short-term, from using more natural resources, more chemicals, more land and more energy, to feed ourselves.

Scarcity in land and key nutrients (potassium, phosphorus, nitrogen) for plant growth is often highlighted as a limiting factor. But on a global scale we have enough of both.

While some regions are deficient in key nutrients, in other areas fertilisers are applied far in excess of requirements. In fact, reducing nutrient imbalances and inefficiencies between regions would go a long way to closing yield gaps with fairly minimal changes to total worldwide nitrogen and phosphate use.

While some regions face a shortage of arable land, in other areas existing prime agricultural land is rapidly being converted to car parks, suburbs and other non-agricultural uses. We could protect this land, as well as restore the many millions of hectares lost to land degradation. Or we could tap in to more than 1.4 billion hectares of potential prime land that is available in selected countries to be converted to agriculture.

Yes, converting this land to agriculture would mean further deforestation, huge biodiversity losses and significant consequences for the mitigation of climate change. But this doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Yes, more agricultural productivity growth will be needed, but rates of growth will not need to be as high as they have been in the past. There is some room to move.

Photo by Horticulture Group on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mmwhortgroup/8949143931

Photo by Horticulture Group on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mmwhortgroup/8949143931

Ironically, highlighting threats in order to raise awareness about the need for change can become a justification for more of the same. And the reality is that we have the agricultural know-how to do things differently.

Current food shortages also get headlines. But we already have enough food. While many countries face conditions of chronic food scarcity, the food we do produce is being lost through spoilage and wastage, at rates as high as 40 per cent in both developing and developed countries.

The world already produces more than enough food for everyone, it just isn’t distributed equitably or efficiently. Growing more is an easier solution than addressing issues of access and availability. But it isn’t our only option.

So what would we need to do? There is no right answer. Social, environmental and economic considerations come in to play. Issues of livelihoods, rural development and health are central. We could choose to limit agricultural expansion, encourage new crops and greater genetic diversity. We could choose to protect the ecological foundation of food security, focus on integrated farming systems, distribute phosphorus more equitably and efficiently.

We could choose to invest differently, avoid dangerous climate change, limit consumption, and focus on alternate sources of energy for agricultural intensification.

We could encourage more resilient and equitable trade regimes. We could support smallholders and agriculture for development.

Most of all, we could choose a different paradigm, where ecological sustainability is the entry point for all agricultural development. We could decide that we were actually serious about long-term sustainability.

Sustainable governance of ecosystems and natural resources could provide the framework for an intensification of agriculture that doesn’t undermine the ecological foundation on which our food system relies.

Such a paradigm shift could reposition agricultural production from its current role as the world’s single largest driver of global environmental change, to a spearhead for taking humanity into an era where we operate within the boundaries of earth’s biophysical processes and functions.

Or we could choose to avoid such difficult debates, and continue as we are. The choice is ours.

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This piece is based on an article in the Food Security journal:

McKenzie, F. C. and Williams, J., 2015. Sustainable food production: constraints, challenges and choices by 2050. Food Security, published online 12 March 2015.

3 Responses

  1. Stephen.bartos says:

    This is the debate we need to be having: rather than apocalyptic visions of a world running out of food, a serious analysis of food maldistribution and misallocation problems.

    The FAO estimates the world has more arable land out of than in cultivation (which, incidentally, does not mean deforestation – there are still massive tracts of arable rangelands). We are not running out of suitable new farmland.

    On existing farmland we have opportunities to massively grow production without fertiliser and pesticide overuse. Most of these opportunities are simple:

    . identifying varieties of crops more suited to land types, and testing soil fertility – even simply ph – before planting, something the majority of the world’s poor farmers cannot currently afford
    . contour ploughing, use of shade trees, complementary plants, effective crop rotation
    . using iron rather than wood ploughs
    . specialisation of crop growing in areas most suited, and redistribution the resulting food. This is better than using one plot for all purposes: while there may still be romantics who fantasise about ‘noble savage’ or ‘earthy peasant’ subsistence farmers who thrash a patch of land to feed themselves, boy is this a wasteful and environmentally degrading practice!

    The list could go on. Most of the problems come down to extreme poverty, which means the solutions are inexpensive in western terms.

    Although, as the article notes, the problem of wasted food in the west is an issue. That’s rather closer to home. We could also note the number of obese people in developed countries recently overtook the number of the severely malnourished people in developing countries.

    More open trade and investment in food would help in a couple of ways – raise incomes of poor farmers, distribute expertise, encourage specialisation.

    On governance, not clear how sustainable governance differs from any other sort of good governance; its clear worldwide that poor political governance (corruption, malfeasance, lack of trust and accountability – see Kaufmann etc.) produces poor environmental outcomes.

    Not sure what the authors propose as other solutions, unfortunately: the article from which this is extracted is too damn expensive to buy online.

    • fionamck says:

      Thanks Stephen for your thoughtful comments. I am glad you agree this is the debate we need. As you say, there are many solutions, some simple and inexpensive, but often overlooked. Our paper focuses at the macro level, proposing 12 areas or ‘choices’ including encouraging new crops and greater genetic diversity; protecting the ecological foundation of food security; focusing on integrated farming systems; distributing phosphorus more equitably and efficiently; and encouraging more resilient and equitable trade regimes (among other things). They all sound simple enough but as always complexity arises in implementation, as do differences across local contexts. We use the term sustainable governance to make explicit the environmental component of sustainability, including the management of natural resources. A bit like ‘good governance plus’ – not inconsistent but a broader interpretation than is sometimes given to good governance (as being limited to decision processes associated with the management of public resources and affairs). Thanks. Fiona McKenzie.

  2. davidk says:

    Fiona and John, I like your optimistic vision, but this doesn’t have to mean that every patch of land has to be managed to an ecologically optimal level. As argued elsewhere (Kemp, D.R., and Michalk, D.L. (2007). Towards sustainable grassland and livestock management. Journal of Agricultural Science, Cambridge 145, 543-564.) there is a case to triage the landscape. Any city is an environmental mess, but we are unlikely to bulldoze them away. Similarly we may be better to intensively utilise some areas e.g. for horticulture, chickens etc., and accept some costs to reduce the pressure on less-intensively utilised land.
    We also need to think about the unit of management. In Europe various programs require every field to have less than maximum levels of some nutrients. But it would be more rational to use the farm as a unit and manage what happens at the boundary of a farm. For example we could apply fertiliser on slopes that is then ‘trapped’ with relevant crops of trees at the bottom of the hill to limit any impacts on riparian zones. In some cases the relevant unit could be a group of farms to enable catchments to be managed. I know some of this can already apply, but it is far from the norm.

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