Claire Rowan is group technical editor, magazines, FoodBev Media. This is a personal blog and views expressed are her own.

12 Dec 2012

How to feed nine billion consumers

Underlying much of the conversation at the Chatham House Food Security event in London this year was the undeniable need for all parties involved in the global food supply chain to act now to ensure the sustainability of our food resources.

The question of how to feed the nine billion consumers forecast to require feeding by 2050 formed the backdrop to discussions about sustainable intensive production, the technologies available to allow us to produce more food, and the views of consumers and governments.

Research highlighted the extreme impact of a four-degree climate change versus the previously predicted two-degree rise in the planet’s temperature in the future, which will add to the challenge of growing more food or even sustaining current production levels. As the negative impact of climate change is cumulative, mitigating solutions have to be initiated immediately or the repercussions could be catastrophic, said one speaker.

According to a Chatham House report launched at the event, ‘the spectre of resource insecurity has come back with a vengeance’. The Resources Futures report reiterated the fact that the world is undergoing a period of intensified resource stress, driven in part by the scale and speed of demand growth from emerging economies and a decade of tight commodity markets.

Speakers highlighted that China imported maize for the first time this year as its booming demand moves it away from self-sufficiency and sees it buy up land elsewhere in the world in a bid to keep feeding its population.

‘Whether or not resources are actually running out, the outlook is one of supply disruptions, volatile prices, accelerated environmental degradation and rising political tensions over resource access', according to the opening pages of the Chatham House’s report. ‘Poorly designed and short-sighted policies are making things worse, not better’.

Tackling resource price volatility

The report proposes a series of interventions, including new informal dialogues involving a group of producer and consumer countries (‘Resource 30’ or R30) to tackle resource price volatility and to improve confidence and coordination in what it calls ‘increasingly integrated global resource markets’.

What is clear is that finding solutions through partnerships between the private sector, governments, NGOs, farmers and other interested parties in the supply chain is vital if we are to stem this inexorable move in the same direction. Many of the examples of such partnerships and successful projects provided throughout the conference served to inject a note of optimism into proceedings.

Sustainable intensification

With the focus on increasing production in particular, we heard from many speakers about the numerous excellent projects that have resulted in increased crop yields.

“Sustainable intensification is more effective than looking at reducing wastage in current food supplies, redistributing current food stocks, or us all turning vegetarian,” suggested one speaker. “Both advanced and traditional technologies coupled with improved management practices are game changers in terms of yield, and global and national food security. Yet, they are still not taken seriously even by developing countries, which are most at risk of food insecurity.”

Some examples of successful intervention techniques that have been used to improve agricultural output include micro-dosing of water or fertiliser, which involves small caps (often from empty soft drink bottles), being filled with encapsulated water or fertiliser and planted with individual seeds as they are sown. This targeted approach has led to a doubling of the crop yield, yet uses the least fertiliser necessary and avoids the need to fertilise the entire field, which would lead to waste.

Planting a leguminous plant between rows of maize has also been shown to depress the growth of a parasitic weed called striga, which can otherwise cause havoc with crop production in Africa, Asia and Australasia, while drought-resistant rice crops or genetically modified disease-resistant crop varieties hold promise.

Other more 'blue sky' technologies that were touched upon include synthetic biology, genome editing, virus-induced gene sequencing, robot farms, vertical farming, lab grown meat and NO2 fixing.

We discovered how much more is now known about livestock and how this knowledge has given rise to precision nutrition for animals, which in turn leads to far higher protein yields than ever before. Opportunities also lie in alternatives such as larval or fungal proteins.

To help bring the technologies to the farmers, extend current research, set target yearly adoption rates, and help the take up of these technologies through training so that it's ultimately the people on the ground in the developing countries that run the sustainable intensification projects themselves, NGOs and government organisations are actively pursuing partnership organisations and players from the private sector, plus working on policy frameworks that facilitate uptake. However, more than one speaker pointed out that there are no silver bullets or solutions to fit all, but there is ongoing evaluation of what works best and where.

‘Technology and production are not the only things we need to address', said many speakers. ‘Consumption patterns, trade laws, diet and women’s empowerment are also crucial issues that will have an impact. And, if all the value-added ends up at the top of the chain, you can have as much innovation as you like but it doesn’t provide the rewards it should.’

Plus, as we've heard before, with improved yields comes the need for improved storage and distribution, and as one speaker pointed out: ‘we know how to intensify production, but the question is, is it sustainable?’

Much of the food in developing nations perishes through lack of storage.

On more than one occasion during the conference, I pondered that even if we are able to increase production and raise the standards of living of developing nations, which will surely lead to a greater consumption demand from those very populations themselves empowered to purchase, we come full circle.

Clearly, it's imperative to continue to improve the ability of developing nations to grow, store and distribute sufficient food. However, I suspect that one day, the need to face the underlying inequality in global consumption patterns that have led to half of the world starving while the other half suffers from obesity, will become inevitable.

To find commercial incentives to address the oversupply and diet of excess in the developed world while investing in ensuring others have enough to eat will involve a quantum shift in our current societal modus operandi. However, as one speaker confirmed, “If our planet does increase in temperature by four degrees as predicted, we are going to have a new society anyway.”

Ultimately, ‘the time to act is now’ and at FoodBev Media, we are committed to bringing you news of the initiatives and projects taking place that will provide the tools for positive action.

It was abundantly clear from conversations in the break periods at Chatham House that there is both a commercial and consumer will to ‘do the right thing’ and to take action in localised areas to make a difference.

Please do contact us with any developments you have in place already that may need support from within the food and beverage manufacturing sector, and let’s work together to share awareness of how we can all contribute towards the sustainability of the world’s food supply in the future.

We look forward to hearing from you.

(The Food Security event was held under the Chatham House rule, which prevents the reporting of the identity or affiliation of any speakers or participants.)