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Increasing demand and urbanisation challenge global food systems

by Lisa Anderson | https://twitter.com/LisaAndersonNYC | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 6 September 2012 10:20 GMT

Greater yields and more sustainable production are needed to combat food insecurity, experts say

NEW YORK (AlertNet)—With most of the world’s arable land already in use, more efficient and sustainable methods of food production that provide higher yields are essential to feed an increasingly urban global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, according to experts in food security.

“The way we produce food now is literally unsustainable,” said Charles Godfray, professor of zoology and director of the Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford.

Moreover, he said, the way we consume food is also unsustainable in a world where there are not only more people but more affluent people demanding a higher quality diet. “It is impossible for the world to have a Western diet,” he said, particularly when it comes to increased meat consumption.

Godfray was among the speakers on “Food Security in an Urbanizing World,” a panel hosted by the Security & Sustainability Forum, a public interest organisation in Washington, D.C. that runs web discussions featuring experts on human health and welfare impacts caused by climate change and other environmental disruptions.

The solution to food security is not a one-size-fits-all response, the experts said. They emphasized that different regions must adopt different approaches to fulfill what they described as the four pillars of food security: availability of food, access to nutritious food, safe methods of food handling and preparation, and stability of the food system.

In urban areas of developing countries, for example, “the physical availability of food is relatively secure but the issue of food safety is a problem,” said Ed Keturakis, an agribusiness specialist and agricultural consultant to USAID, the US Agency for International Development.  He noted that supply chains in developing nations are more anonymous and regulations surrounding food processing less stringent than those in the developed world.

With about 40 percent of the populations of low and middle-income countries living in urban areas, the urban poor are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity, he said.


Many of the urban poor, for whom food represents a large portion of the household budget, may not have steady incomes to buy food. They often have limited ability to store food, which puts them in jeopardy if a natural or political crisis disrupts the food distribution system. They are also more vulnerable to water-borne illness due to food contaminated by unclean water.

The wealthy also face challenges created by newfound affluence, said Alan Kelly, a former dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and co-editor of the book “Food Security in a Global Economy.”

“Increased affluence increases demand for an improved diet and increased consumption of processed food,” he said. Such food is often of low nutritional value and can lead to obesity and other diseases.

Wealthier people also tend to consume more meat and animal products, which are financially and environmentally expensive to produce due to feed and water requirements, Kelly said. One key is to increase animal productivity, not the number of animals, he said.

For example, he pointed to productivity changes in the United States between 1950 and 2010. In 1950, there were 22 million milk cows each yielding 664 gallons of milk per year and a total of 40 million cattle, each supporting the equivalent of 30 people per year.  By 2010, there were 9 million milk cows each producing 2,750 gallons of milk annually and a total of 16.2 million cattle, each supporting the equivalent of 121 people per year.

The result of increased productivity has also been a four-fold reduction in emissions of methane, a particularly powerful climate-changing gas, he noted.

Kelly said the most urgent need for innovation to increase agricultural productivity is in Africa, which will have to import some 75 percent of its food by 2025 if it does not improve its production methods.  

He described Africa as the most food insecure continent, noting that 80 percent of the soil is degraded, all fertilizers must be imported and 70 percent of the rural population and 43 percent of city dwellers face food insecurity.

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