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FAO: World's future food security in jeopardy

Tuesday 28 February 2017

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has admitted that its food security goals won’t be met by 2030 in a new report that outlines challenges facing food production. Humanity's future ability to feed itself is in jeopardy due to intensifying pressures on natural resources, mounting inequality, and the fallout from a changing climate, according to an FAO report released last week.

The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges paper points out that, although some progress has been made towards reducing the number of people who are hungry worldwide, since the 1980s, "expanding food production and economic growth have often come at a heavy cost to the natural environment.”

"Almost one half of the forests that once covered the Earth are now gone. Groundwater sources are being depleted rapidly. Biodiversity has been deeply eroded," it notes.

In his introduction to the paper, FAO director general Jose Graziano da Silva warns that planetary boundaries may be surpassed unless leaders take immediate action. However, Graziano da Silva may be behind the times: in 2015, prominent researchers warned that four of the nine planetary boundaries (thresholds beyond which the systems that support human life on Earth will break down) have already been crossed. The thresholds for extinction rate, deforestation, atmospheric CO2 and disruption to the flow of of nitrogen and phosphorus have already crossed over into dangerous territory.

By 2050 there will be an estimated 10 billion people on Earth. In a scenario with moderate economic growth, this population increase will push up global demand for agricultural products by 50 percent over present levels, according to the FAO, which will only intensify pressures on already-strained natural resources. According to current dietary trends, more people will also be eating fewer cereals and larger amounts of meat, fruits, vegetables and processed food, which will drive more deforestation, land degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, experts from Penn State and the U.S. Government last week challenged claims that food producers must double production by mid-century, arguing that this lets agriculture off the hook, when the real task ahead is to secure 'major reductions in environmental impact.’ Currently, FAO estimates that between a third and one half of all food produced around the world is wasted before it can be consumed, and researchers have said efforts must be made to create more efficient food systems before production is ramped up, and the environmental impacts of agriculture increase further.

Climate change hampering food security

"Climate change will affect every aspect of food production," the report adds. This will mean different things for different places, with higher sea levels threatening some places, droughts, stronger storms and flooding. In the UK, the South-East is predicted to encounter water scarcity, whilst there will be more rain, falling less often but in heavier downpours, causing a greater risk of flooding for the rest of the country.

In its latest paper, the FAO questions whether the world's agriculture and food systems are capable of sustainably meeting the needs of a burgeoning global population. The agriculture organisation believes so, but - arguing the planet's food systems are capable of producing enough food to do so, and in a sustainable way - but urged that unlocking that potential, to benefit all of humanity, will require "major transformations."

The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) aim to eradicate chronic food insecurity and malnutrition by 2030, but there is no chance of this happening unless vulnerable people are protected and inequalities reduced, the FAO said.

Although the UN Organisation recommends introducing ‘pro-poor’ solutions to improve food security and make farming more environmentally benign, UN agencies have been criticised for relying heavily on pro-corporate fixes in the past, and looking to business behemoths, who have played a large part in driving inequality and environmental damage. What’s more, inequality is rising, not being checked: Monday’s report was released just days after charity Oxfam revealed that the eight richest businessmen in the world own more than the poorest 50% of the Earth’s population combined.

Even so, FAO argues that efforts must be made to produce more food from current agricultural lands, though the report states “High-input, resource-intensive farming systems, which have caused massive deforestation, water scarcities, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, cannot deliver sustainable food and agricultural production.”

Instead, FAO wants to foster better land management, often by smaller-scale farmers. More sustainable food systems, which make more efficient use of land, water and other inputs, promote biodiversity and sharply reduce fossil fuel use (to cut agricultural green-house gas emissions), will require more investment to promote transition, and more R&D spending, the report says.

Along with boosting production and resilience, equally critical will be creating food supply chains that better connect farmers in low- and middle-income countries to urban markets — in addition to measures which ensure access for consumers to nutritious and safe food at affordable prices, such as such as pricing policies and social protection programs, it says.

FAO's report identifies 15 trends and 10 challenges affecting the world's food systems:

15 trends

  • A rapidly increasing world population marked by growth "hot spots," urbanization, and aging
  • Diverse trends in economic growth, family incomes, agricultural investment, and economic inequality.
  • Greatly increased competition for natural resources
  • Climate change
  • Plateauing agricultural productivity
  • Transboundary diseases
  • Increased conflicts, crises and natural disasters
  • Persistent poverty, inequality and food insecurity
  • Dietary transitions affecting nutrition and health
  • Structural changes in economic systems and employment implications
  • Increased migration
  • Changing food systems and resulting impacts on farmers livelihoods
  • Persisting food losses and waste
  • New international governance mechanisms for responding to food and nutrition security issues
  • Changes in international financing for development.

10 challenges

  • Sustainably improving agricultural productivity to meet increasing demand
  • Ensuring a sustainable natural resource base
  • Addressing climate change and intensification of natural hazards
  • Eradicating extreme poverty and reducing inequality
  • Ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition
  • Making food systems more efficient, inclusive and resilient
  • Improving income earning opportunities in rural areas and addressing the root causes of migration
  • Building resilience to protracted crises, disasters and conflicts
  • Preventing transboundary and emerging agriculture and food system threats
  • Addressing the need for coherent and effective national and international governance

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