Why increasing production won’t solve the world’s food crisis

by Richard Alford | Send a Cow
Thursday, 6 April 2017 14:00 GMT

Pineapple guava, soy beans and okra are sold at the roadside stand at a in Ranch Santa Fe, California, U.S. on October 5, 2007. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

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We must be wary of going too far down the single path of increased production, which pays little attention to the costs to our health, our societies, and our environment

How do we end global hunger and achieve the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG2), of "safe, sufficient and nutritious food for all by 2030?"

It’s a huge challenge and the road ahead is daunting. The global population is set to rise by over a billion by then and agriculture’s impact on the environment and climate change is already severe. It also forces us to consider a number of other issues. At a recent debate on SDG2 hosted by Send a Cow in London, panellists raised various contributory themes, including scientific innovation, the role of business and the situation of women.

I think it is a surmountable problem, so long as we address a bitter irony that while 800 million people go hungry, a further two billion are overweight or obese. All those people are malnourished, and their condition can be traced to the same problem: a seriously skewed global food system.

There are three broad, interlinked areas that we need to address in order to balance our food system for the benefit of all.

Firstly, how we produce our food. We are, as panellist Simon Billing from Forum for the Future said, currently locked in a ‘productionist paradigm’, when we should be focusing on producing not more food but more nutritious food. In March, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published a report condemning as a "myth" the idea that pesticides are needed to feed the world, and highlighting the damage they cause to the environment as well as human and animal health.

The report advocates investment in organic production and natural methods of suppressing pests. I wholeheartedly agree. An agroecological mixed crop-livestock farming approach has countless benefits. By utilising natural resources effectively, smallscale farmers lower costs, increase yields, and vary the diversity of foodstuffs that they produce. With careful farm planning and skills, even farmers with small land sizes can produce enough to feed their families a varied diet, store a surplus for the hunger months, and sell surplus crops enabling their community to also eat well.

Secondly, how we distribute or trade our food. The majority of the world’s population are fed through the non-formal food system, through local markets supplied predominantly by women farmers as highlighted in a recent report by CSM. However, increasingly this is under threat as larger and larger tracts of land in the developing world are being taken over to meet the developed world’s demands for food and energy. This trend needs to stop, and we need to support investment in local markets, bringing smallholders closer to wholesalers and consumers.

And thirdly, how we eat. All of us – whether in rural Africa or here in my office in the UK – need education about what constitutes a healthy diet. We need a range of fresh foods every day, including sufficient protein, vitamins and minerals, with limited sugars. We need it to be culturally appropriate and easy to obtain, whether from our own land or from our local shops and markets. We need to have the time and skills to prepare it, the gender equity to share it fairly among members of the household, and the self-esteem to want to eat healthily. Yes, personal choice plays a role; but so too does government and corporate investment.

As Professor Corinna Hawkes of City University pointed out at our recent debate: “It’s not about regulating people, it’s about sound public policy that’s going to incentivise business entrepreneurship to provide the right kind of food”.

So will today’s children be healthy-eating young adults in 2030? I am optimistic that we can end global hunger by 2030. But we must be wary of going too far down the single path of increased production, which pays little attention to the costs to our health, our societies, and our environment.

Richard Alford is director of research and impact at British charity Send a Cow.