Pie in the sky: is global food security within reach in the face of a changing climate?

BY Kevin Emslie ON 28 August 2017

In 1996 food security was defined by the World Food Summit as follows: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. A food secure world is one of the pillars of the United Nation’s Development Programme’s (UNDP) second of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of Zero Hunger by 2030. However, achieving global food security is no easy task. To date it has been stifled by a combination of numerous factors such as population growth, wealth inequality, value chain inefficiencies and more recently climate change.

With the world’s population expected to exceed 8,5 billion by 2030 (~7,6 billion in mid-2017), a ~35% increase in food production – along with its equitable distribution – will be needed to supply the growing demand. Based on projected trends, however, food production will only increase by approximately 20% by 2030. Therefore, something needs to be done differently to make up the missing 15% or “Pie in the Sky” needed to successfully eradicate world hunger. What is required, is the sustainable transformation of food and agricultural systems across the world. Transformed systems would need to be highly productive, efficient, without waste, as well as being resilient to the negative impacts of climate change. These impacts include inter alia increasing temperatures and more frequent droughts and floods, and are already evident in global agricultural systems – particularly those in tropical regions, which are home to the some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Moreover, the impacts of climate change on food production are expected to intensify in the future, pushing the “Pie in the Sky” further out of reach. Without the implementation of innovative and effective climate change adaptation and mitigation interventions, the 15% increase in food production needed to attain Zero Hunger by 2030 may never be realised. Shortfalls in food supply would most notably lead to food price increases, which would be devastating for those already suffering from high rates of hunger. Consequently, food security should arguably be central to the world’s climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. These efforts would include policies, strategies and actions that target vulnerabilities and threats (such as upholding the Paris Agreement on Climate Change) and promote the implementation of climate-smart agricultural systems.

With the impacts of climate change on global food security becoming increasingly apparent, there is no better time to act. In the face of climate change, the global community needs to collectively mobilise and amalgamate its resources to ensure the complete transformation of the world’s agricultural systems to those which maximise production and minimise wastage while maintaining a low ecological footprint. Such an achievement is pivotal to not only reaching but ultimately reeling in the “Pie in the Sky” and achieving global food security by 2030. Can the world, however, successfully transform its agricultural systems? With the multitude of economically viable and sustainable pre- and post-harvest farming practices and technologies available, there is no excuse for failing to transform agriculture. These practices and technologies include: i) nitrogen-efficient crop varieties; ii) heat-tolerant crop varieties; ii) zero-tillage; iii) integrated soil fertility management; iv) drip irrigation (where conditions relating to soil type, market access, cultural norms, and water resources are appropriate); v) airtight storage solutions; and vi) cold chain transport. The worldwide implementation and integration of such solutions into agricultural systems would not only strengthen productivity and resilience, but also improve farmers’ incomes and help reduce food prices. For example, one estimate suggests that through using nitrogen-efficient crop varieties alone, the number of people vulnerable to undernourishment in developing countries in 2050 could be reduced by more than 120 million.

The adoption of the above-mentioned practices and technologies will not be a walk in the park, as many barriers restricting their uptake first need to be overcome. These barriers include: i) policies that encourage unsustainable agricultural practices; ii) limited knowledge about the localised impacts of climate change; iii) poor forecasting and early warning technologies; iv) lack of access to loans and credit; and v) inadequate understanding of climate-smart agriculture. Smallholder farmers in particular are affected by these barriers. As a result, with the smallholder farming population in developing countries numbering about 475 million, it will be difficult, if not impossible to reach the “Pie in the Sky” if the adaptation of smallholders to climate change is not prioritised as part of a holistic global plan.

There is by no means a simple, all-encompassing “silver bullet” available to reach a global state of Zero Hunger by 2030. However, with a host of climate change, agricultural and poverty-related initiatives already completed, ongoing or planned worldwide, as well as the availability of a trove of scientific and technological advancements in the agricultural sector, the world is moving in the right direction. If such momentum is maintained while incentives and barriers to sustainable agricultural and food systems are reset and weakened, respectively, the world may soon be feasting on the “Pie in the Sky”.