Growing Global Population Can Be Fed But Only With Radical Reforms of Food Production

As the global economy struggles to recover from the financial crisis of 2008 it is becoming increasingly evident that something radical has to change if food scarcity and skyrocketing prices are to be prevented.

It is suggested in a number of recently-published studies that leaving food production and distribution in the hands of a small number of global agribusinesses in the private sector and at the mercy of commodity price speculation helps no-one from the small farmer right through to the consumer.

According to Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, there has been chronic underinvestment in agriculture for the last 20 years alongside trade liberalisation, which together have resulted in low productivity and a reliance on cheap food imports in the developing world.

The result has been local farmers struggling to get a decent price for their produce in the face of competition from often subsidised cheap imports. Local farming declines, more people leave the land adding to urban populations and governments try to maintain political stability by keeping food cheap.

It is a vicious circle that leaves developing countries at the mercy of global commodity price speculation – and leaves huge numbers of people either starving or malnourished. Where profit rules, people, especially those on low incomes suffer.

Paul Polman, boss of Unilever recently gave a speech in the UK in which he argued that the focus on subsidising producers of biofuels may have been well-meaning in the context of finding alternatives to the carbon-based technology that is contributing to climate change. But he called the policy misguided in diverting land and food crops from use for food to use for biofuels.

The Foresight Report (UK) and the Agrimonde Study (France), both recently published scientific studies, suggest that it is possible to feed the 9.2 billion people expected to be the world population in 2050, but both say only if there is a revolution in food production and distribution, alongside increasing yields sustainably and reducing waste.

That might mean encouraging changes in diet in the developed world, away from the production of high-energy foods such as meat, which requires more land and diverts grains from people to animal fodder. It also means eating and throwing away less food.

It may also mean governments intervening to create larger reserve food stocks to try to cushion people from the effects of commodity price speculation on prices

The Foresight Report, particularly, says that the current system must be radically and urgently redesigned and calls for governments to put food much higher up their political agendas, co-ordinated with action on climate change, water and energy supplies.

The authors of the report contend that new research and innovative technology, including GM technology, should not be ruled out and that GM technology should be moved from the private sector to public funding to take it out of the “stranglehold” of large agribusiness companies.

Biopesticides Developers have long argued that getting their innovations, like biopesticides, biofungicides and low-chemical yield enhancers, through the testing and licensing regimes in various parts of the world can take years and involve huge costs.

Arguably this pushes these small, innovative organisations into the arms of agribusiness, which has the resources to cover the development and licensing costs. However, that could mean the end products are also beyond affordable reach for the small, developing world farmers who could most benefit from them as well as the training they would need to use them properly.

Copyright (c) 2011 Alison Withers