Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Food security: climate change and sustainable development (TH!NK2½ part I)

I and the other TH!NKers are moving from part 2 to part 3, from climate change and COP15 to sustainable development and the Millennium Development Goals. Both topics are multifaceted, overlapping and quite complex.
In fact, apart from climate change essentially being a sustainability issue, sustainable development was addressed directly several times during TH!NK2. Including by the good old “skeptic” who appeared shocked COP15 had dealt with “international economic development policy”. I strongly suspect climate change will be mentioned more than once during TH!NK3 too.
Luckily, the highly esteemed scientific journal Science published a review article this month: Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Food security is one of those topics that is extremely important and linked to both climate change and sustainable development. As well as to security policy which is something I have been blogging about at my own Ecowar. It's a good article, summing up on the most important aspects while providing reliable figures.
To sum it up: A growing population with an increasing consumption will have to get by on an exceedingly exploited Earth. This will lead to crises, challenges and tough choices. A global political effort is needed to solve the most pressing problems and take advantage of the windows of opportunity: closing the yield gap, reducing waste, changing diets and more.

The yield gap

The first subject is enormous and actually mixed into most parts of the article. To “close the yield gap” means moving from the harvest we do achieve to what we theoretically could achieve if our current knowledge and technology was utilized. They mention a political aspect as well:
Food production in developing countries can be severely affected by market interventions in the developed world, such as subsidies or price supports.”
Just look at the subsidization of sugar beet farming in the EU, US and Australia which makes the otherwise sound sugar cane farming in the 3rd world less profitable. The chapter on the yield gap also addresses something that is central to the whole sustainability discussion:
Food production has important negative “externalities,” namely effects on the environment or economy that are not reflected in the cost of food.”
Take the difference between a liter of “normal” aka “industrial” milk on the one hand and a liter of organic milk on the other. The latter is a bit more expensive. Having been buying organic food for many years I have more than once been ridiculed by someone who just saw a TV show claiming organic food isn't more healthy that other types of food. Well, my answer usually is that “normal” food is cheap because you really don't pay for it. You don't pay for the pesticides you indirectly put in our common ground water, the global warming you cause by the energy intensive production of fertilizers, the woes of future generations who will not be able to sustain this “normal” production et cetera, et cetera.
And contrary to what is sometimes claimed, sustainability isn't synonymous with a drop in production:
One study of 286 agricultural sustainability projects in developing countries, involving 12.6 million chiefly small-holder farmers on 37 million hectares, found an average yield increase of 79% across a very wide variety of systems and crop types”

Increased food production

Part of closing the yield gap – or rather, raising the bar – is the whole genetic modification issue. So far what we have seen from that opportunity is decreased sustainability. Because the first large scale GM crops have been optimized for profits through aggressive patenting, monopolies, design for intensively industrialized farming and reliance on pesticides. What needs to be developed is crops with beneficial traits (such as drought resistance and less greenhouse gas side-effects in both cultivation and livestock digestion). Available to 3rd world farmers without a debt trap attached.
Advances in genetic technology can help us take great strides in crop cultivation in general. One of the things we need to preserve to most efficiently take advantage of such technology is our natural biodiversity. Our ecosystem is a treasure trove of biochemistry that shouldn't be squandered away. Year 2010 is the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity because MDG number 7 included “achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss” of biodiversity. As I have already complained, this goal has failed. Doubly painful since it is so integrally linked to the climate change issue.

Reducing food waste

Now there is an obvious solution, right. 30 to 40% of all food is wasted. Solve that problem and we're almost halfway!
Except in the developing world much waste is due to infrastructure limitations including lack of refrigeration. But installing refrigerators for 3 billion more people will consume enormous amounts of energy leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions and other problems.
In the 1st world we are rich enough to throw away food for cosmetic reasons. We rely on dates printed on packaging, not an actual assessment of the freshness of our foods. And due to diseases caused by industrialization (mad cows et cetera) we feel forced to destroy food waste rather than compost it or feed it to livestock.
Lastly, we waste massive amounts of food by converting grain into meat. Since the conversion efficiency is about 10% why don't we try and go without eating for nine days after one day of meat? That would be a lesson. However, vegetarian zealots: back off. There is plenty of room for livestock by feeding with human food waste and grass, meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, livestock doubles as workforce in ploughing and transport plus produces manure.
The conclusion begins: “There is no simple solution to sustainably feeding 9 billion people.” No, obviously not. And we'll experience endless discussion, crises and conflict over the arable land we have left as well as over the way we manage it and divide it's harvests.

"Harvest" by seyed mostafa zamani

This article is also posted to my column at TH!NK ABOUT IT #2: Climate Change.

The article Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People was brought to my attention by The Oil Drum. Thanks.

ResearchBlogging.orgGodfray, H., Beddington, J., Crute, I., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J., Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S., & Toulmin, C. (2010). Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People Science, 327 (5967), 812-818 DOI: 10.1126/science.1185383

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