How can we secure food supplies?

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How can we secure food supplies?

by Bryn Smith


Food crops growing in the Chinese countryside (Vera and Jean-Christophe under a Creative Commons Licence)

Our world relies on a complicated system of transport, communication and trade to bring food from the fields to our tables. But all systems have problems and can break down.

The train line in Jordan is broken so they cannot deliver grain from the ports. There are typhoons in the Philippines, which destroy the rice fields of thousands of small farmers. A civil war in Côte d’Ivoire stops the transport of milk and sugar to Mali and Burkina Faso. These are some of the problems of food security. Because of these problems, 842 million people still live in hunger across the world. Over a billion people have problems because they don't have enough zinc, iron and vitamin A.

The World Bank has said that food security is a growing problem. Now they are also worried about water, energy, social policy and international relations. The World Bank recently set a goal of cutting extreme poverty to 3 per cent by 2030. So they must think about food security; poverty and food security are closely related.

To make this problem worse, there have been the two sudden food price rises in the last decade, one in 2007-08, the other one in 2010-11. They came as a shock, and did not have much effect on the secure, protected food supply in the first world. But in the developing world, they caused a lot of damage and many serious problems. They forced very big price rises in basic food that people need to survive. If the developing world cannot create a secure food chain, the people and the countries suffer. A World Bank report said that children who do not eat enough will earn at least a 10-per-cent less in their life. So the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) goes down and the country gets less money from tax.

We need to think a lot about how we farm, transport and eat our food.

It’s OK to leave fields empty in cooler areas of the world, but in tropical climates, an empty field creates desert. Peter Andrews won the Order of Australia for his work on sustainable and natural farming methods. He showed this was true in Australia. He showed how the sun and the atmosphere take away the very important nutrients and water from fields with no vegetation. He tells farmers to increase their ‘green surface area’. They should allow everything, even weeds, to grow in fields. And they shouldn’t spray herbicides and plough the field, but they should mix in the plants that grow naturally to create a sustainable earth where crops can grow.

More and more, our crops rely on fertilizers. But these do not work well and we do not need them. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has said that only 30 to 40 per cent of the fertilizer is used by the earth. More than half is taken into the atmosphere and ground waters, and the chemicals go into the air and water. So more than half of all fertilizer produced is wasted, and it’s making it more difficult for us to produce food. Farmers must start using fertilizer on a small scale, not filling their fields with it. And soon, they will not need fertilizers at all, with new technologies like the ‘zero-tillage’ project in India run by Australia and Brazil.

Biofuels get a lot of financial help from governments. And they use land that should be used for food crops. This means we produce a lot less food. An expert report on food security said that world biofuel production has risen from 20 to 100 billion litres per year. A lot of food crops could be grown instead to feed a lot of people.

Transport and buildings need better planning. A study compared Bahrain and Jordan and showed that when they made buildings to store the grain, they cut transport costs by 0.14 per cent of GDP. Future projects must think about this when building new roads, railways etc.

And finally, water. Water is very important to food and farming. 85 per cent of world water is used in growing food. This is more than industry and domestic use together. It is no longer a good idea to irrigate (water the crops), especially in hotter, drier climates and places with little water; because water evaporates and salt levels in the earth increase. Half a billion people now live in countries with not enough water. And this number will probably be 3 billion in 2050. In future, we must use water efficiently and practically. We must see that every drop of water is important.

The World Bank wants to create a world with no poverty. Food and the security of its supply are a big part of that. The World Bank can also continue to keep good relations with the countries that give it most money. So they can benefit from new technologies and agricultural science.

Food and food supply will be a very important problem as the world population grows to 9 billion in 2050. Let’s make sure that world hunger ends before then, or is at least nearly over.

Bryn Smith is a student at James Cook University and was a Global Voices Delegate to the World Bank & IMF Spring Meetings in April 2014.

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