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A growing issue: how can we secure food supplies?

Rice fields in China

Crops growing in the Chinese countryside Vera and Jean-Christophe under a Creative Commons Licence

Our world relies on an intricate system of transport, communication and trade to bring food from the fields to our tables, but any system is subject to flaws and can buckle under stress.

A broken rail line in Jordan halts the delivery of grain from the ports. Typhoons in the Philippines destroy rice paddies belonging to thousands of smallholder farmers. A civil war in Côte d’Ivoire prevents transport of milk and sugar into Mali and Burkina Faso. Due in part to these flaws in food security, 842 million people still live in hunger across the world. Over a billion suffer from zinc, iron and vitamin A deficiencies.

The World Bank has confirmed that food security is a growing issue that now includes concerns about water, energy, social policy and international relations. Its recent goal of cutting extreme poverty to 3 per cent by 2030 must consider food security; the two go hand in hand.

Making this problem worse are the two food price spikes in the last decade, one in 2007-08, the other in 2010-11. These spikes came like tsunamis, and though they usually failed to break through the dykes and floodwalls of first world nations that have secure food supply and production chains,  this was not the case for the developing world, where these spikes cause untold damage and disruption, and created dangerous inflation in the basic foodstuffs necessary for survival. If the developing world cannot construct a secure food chain, malnutrition causes loss in human capital. A World Bank report has confirmed malnourished children will have at least a 10-per-cent reduction in lifetime earnings. This flows on to losses in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and tax revenue.

We need to take a long, hard look at how we farm, ferry and eat our food.

Leaving fields fallow is fine in temperate zones, but an empty field in tropical climates just creates desert. Peter Andrews, who was awarded the Order of Australia for his work on promoting sustainable and natural farming methods, proves this in Australia by showing how fields left devoid of vegetation have vital nutrients and water sucked out by the sun and atmosphere. He encourages farmers to increase their ‘green surface area’, allowing everything from weeds to willows to grow in fields, and instead of spraying herbicides and ploughing, to mulch existing plants to create a sustainable fertility bed that crops may grow in.

Our crops increasingly rely on fertilizers, which are inefficient and unnecessary. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has discovered that as little as 30 to 40 per cent of the fertilizer is soaked up by soils, with over half being absorbed into the atmosphere and ground waters, contaminating it. That means that over half of all fertilizer produced is not only wasted, it’s damaging our ability to produce food. Farmers must start a micro-approach to fertilizing instead of saturating fields with it – that is, until new technologies make fertilizers redundant, such as the zero-tillage project in India being co-developed by Australia and Brazil.

Biofuels are taking advantage of generous government subsidies, taking up area that should be dedicated to crops. This reduces supplies drastically. An expert report on food security found world biofuel production has risen from 20 to 100 billion litres per year. That’s a lot of crop that could be feeding a lot of people.

Infrastructure needs to be better planned. A case study comparing Bahrain to Jordan found the simple placement of silos and mills for grain reduced transport costs by 0.14 per cent of GDP. Future reconstruction projects need to take this into account when building a new road, railway or anything in between.

And finally, water. Water is critical to food and farming, with 85 per cent of world water usage allocated to growing food, more than industry and domestic use combined. Irrigation is no longer a good idea, especially in hotter, drier climates and places of water scarcity, where water will simply evaporate and raise ground salt levels. Half a billion people currently live in water-scarce countries, a number expected to rise to 3 billion by 2050. Future use of water must be efficient and practical, making each drop go as far as possible.

The World Bank’s mandate, etched on a marble wall in its headquarters in Washington DC, is to create a world free of poverty. Food and the security of its supply are an undeniable part of that mission. The World Bank can also continue to foster good relations with its majority donors. Nurturing these relationships brings benefits in the form of unique technologies and agricultural science.

Food, and its supply, from rice to rye and beef to bacon, will be a paramount issue as we march towards a population of 9 billion in 2050. Let’s get to work and make sure that world hunger ends before then, or is at least well on its way out.

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

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