Food for All

LONDON – With food prices having doubled in the past decade, food security is back on the international agenda. How can the world produce more to feed the next billion people? How can agricultural yields be raised? What is the best way to develop aquaculture?

Unfortunately, this focus on the supply side misses half the problem. The world already produces more than twice the number of calories that the human population requires. An estimated one-third of global food production is wasted. In poor countries, food is lost due to inadequate storage and gaps in the supply chain (for example, a lack of refrigeration); in rich countries, food is also wasted in the supply chain, and consumers throw a lot of food away.

Moreover, in many cases, it is poverty, not lack of food in the market, that drives hunger and nutritional deficiency. Millions of people simply cannot afford to buy the food that they need, which could still be the case if supply were increased. Fixing the demand side to get nutritious food to the poor – particularly to the mothers and children who are most vulnerable – is one of the most pressing food-security imperatives.

A broad range of initiatives can contribute to a solution. For example, micro-level food security can be enhanced through programs that deliver free meals to vulnerable population groups. Schemes that provide free meals to schoolchildren not only help to feed the young; they also create an incentive for parents to keep their children in the classroom.

Initiatives like these are especially successful when complemented with programs that provide access to clean water, energy, safe cooking stoves, and so on. Action to reduce diarrhea – so that children retain the nutritional value of what they eat – is another part of the solution.

Of course, in very poor countries and regions, where people cannot afford to buy food on world markets, the supply side should not be neglected. Boosting yields of locally grown staple foods (rather than cash crops) would increase self-sufficiency and strengthen resilience when international food prices are high.

At the same time, higher agricultural production must be balanced against the associated ecological and social costs. Output in South America, Southeast Asia, and Central Africa currently is being raised mainly by clearing tropical forests, grasslands, and wetlands. This approach contributes to climate change, interrupts hydrological cycles, and causes soil degradation, all of which undermine our planet’s ability to produce food in the long term.

If current trends continue, the majority of the world’s remaining species will be extinct by the end of the century, and it is food production, above all other factors, that has driven the decline. More than 80% of all endangered birds and mammals are threatened by unsustainable land use resulting from agricultural expansion.

The lesson is clear: We should focus our attention on making production more efficient, reducing waste, and addressing the problem of unsustainable consumption.

Reducing food waste could save more than $250 billion worldwide – the equivalent of 65 million hectares of agricultural land use – by 2030. Building a temperature-controlled supply chain with 30,000 tons of modern storage in China would cost more than $100 million a year for the next 20 years. Many developing countries simply do not have the money for such up-front investment. But, with the right focus and much more modest resources, they could dramatically improve the quality of grain silos where more than 30% of food – typically located close to the rural poor – spoils to the point of being unfit for human consumption.

There are already some positive trends that should be capitalized on globally. In the past few years, households in the United Kingdom have cut their food waste by 21% and the food industry has trimmed its waste streams by 8%. The public is more willing to forgo cosmetic perfection: “ugly” fruit and vegetables are the fastest-growing sector of the UK’s fresh-produce market, last year saving 300,000 tons of produce that would otherwise have been wasted for being the wrong shape or size.

Much anxiety is directed toward growing demand for meat and dairy products in China and India. But per capita meat consumption in the United States and Europe is still more than three times higher than in either country.

In addition to eating less meat, production of it needs to be more resource-efficient. In the past, cattle, sheep, and goats fed on grass and other energy sources unavailable to humans, while pigs and chickens fed on waste, thus contributing overall to total food availability. Now one-third of all arable land is used to grow crops to feed livestock, not to grow staple crops for people. The rich buy this food to feed their animals, outbidding the poor who want to buy it to feed their children.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates that using more by-products and waste to feed livestock could liberate enough food on the world market to feed an additional three billion people. The Pig Idea campaign calls for an end to legislation in the European Union and some US states prohibiting the use of food waste to feed pigs and chickens because of the risk of animal diseases. These risks can be managed effectively through proper treatment systems (as in Japan and South Korea). The environmental, economic, and social benefits would be enormous.

The earth is capable of feeding everyone. Failing to address problems affecting supply and demand amounts to grotesque mismanagement and a crime against the world’s poor, the planet’s other species, and future generations.

Jeremy Oppenheim is global director of McKinsey & Company’s Climate Change Special Initiative. Tristram Stuart, a British author and campaigner against food waste, won the 2011 Sophie Prize.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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