Food Security - About Much More Than Just Food

The world’s human population is currently increasing at almost 100 million people a year and United Nations projections for future growth suggest that total numbers will peak at about 9.5 billion in the second half of this century.[1, 2]It is anticipated that much of this growth will occur in the newly emerging countries of sub-Saharan Africa and rapidly industrialising nations of Asia. Some African countries are expected to see population numbers doubling or tripling in the decades ahead – Tanzania for example will see its numbers swell from 49 million – 129 million, and the continent as a whole is projected to reach about 2 billion by mid-century with 40% living in rural locations.[3]In Asia, despite a slowdown in population growth rates, another 1 billion people are anticipated in the region by the 2050s (India alone is expected to grow from 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion), taking the overall figure to about 5.3 billion[1].

This overall increase in numbers, combined with a substantial shift in global demographics as these developing countries move towards more economically affluent lifestyles, is expected to drive growing demand for the natural resources that satisfy basic human needs and support modern industrialised societies. In this regard energy demand is anticipated to increase 40% by 2035, 90% of that growth being attributed to non-OECD countries[4], and agricultural production is projected by some to double by 2050[5], leading to substantial additional requirements for water; overall human demand for water could increase 30% by 2030[1]. The potential for additional environmental degradation and increased environmental risk, such as sea-level rise and climate change, if these growing demands are not met sustainably may be substantial. In our highly connected globalised economies any resulting impacts will not be constrained by borders and are likely to be felt worldwide.

Food sits at the centre of a web of substantial resource utilisation that includes water, energy and land, and sustainable food security potentially offers a key to unlocking a successful overall outcome for humans as global population reaches a peak in the late 21stcentury. The production and processing of food currently accounts for 70% of the water abstracted on the planet for human use[6]and agriculture occupies nearly 50% (4.9GHa) of the productive land available for growing biomass[7]. Add to this the energy used at all stages in the food chain from initial field preparation and planting, through irrigation, cultivation, harvesting and storage, to distribution and market placement and the major impact of food on resource consumption becomes clear. Fertiliser production alone annually accounts for 3–5% of global natural gas demand[7], while agriculture as a whole is responsible for about 8.5% of ‘middle distillate’ oil consumption which includes diesel fuel, heating oil and small generation fuel[8]. In rural communities of developing countries these fuels are often in short supply, expensive and subject to price fluctuations yet their use in the sector can be significant, as for example in India where agriculture accounts for 13% of total diesel consumption[9]. The resulting environmental footprint of the entire global food system is therefore substantial. As global population increases in the decades ahead, finding sustainable solutions for food security is absolutely critical to the outcome for natural resources, environmental risk and human well-being.

Food security is, however, not just about having enough nutritious food to avoid hunger; it is also about much wider issues of access, human development and stability. At the individual and community level it is a key enabler to finding a route out of poverty and a mechanism to increased well-being. No country has significantly reduced the poverty of its population without achieving a higher level of agricultural productivity and connecting farmers to market options, thereby shifting from subsistence to production agriculture. Empirical evidence suggests that a 1% gain in GDP originating from agriculture generates a 6% increase in overall expenditure of the poorest 10% of the population, whereas the same increase in GDP arising from non-agricultural sectors creates zero growth in the expenditure of the poor[10]. In the case of rural communities, increased incomes to the farmer lead to reinvestment in agriculture that result in further growth, therefore enabling a continuous cycle of development gains to begin.

In the broader national context, food security is related to helping ensure the well-being of citizens, underpinning stable states and participation on a wider, often global, stage in trade, commerce and political influence. At the international level, global food security is about reducing geopolitical tensions through access to affordable, nutritious and culturally acceptable domestic food sources and imports. Working towards ensuring sustainable food security not only brings these benefits to human society, but through the high dependency relationship of food with water, energy and land-use it can also enhance water and energy security and reduce land-use tensions as well as environmental degradation and risk.

Currently approximately 842 million people on the planet (about one in eight) goes to bed hungry every night;[11]ensuring everybody has access to affordable, safe and nutritious food is a role for the combined efforts of governments, the private sector and voluntary organisations. In sub-Saharan Africa, as many as one person in three faces hunger daily and recent UN figures suggest that in 2012 about 39% of children under five in the subcontinent were stunted, the figure for southern Asia was even higher at 47%[12]. Significant progress has been made towards meeting the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target to reduce by half the proportion of hungry people by 2015. In this regard several African countries have met the goal[13]through exemplary leadership, including among these Ghana, Djibouti and Sāo Tomé and Príncipe. However, with only one year remaining to achieve the first MDG much work remains to be done. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 12% of the world’s population was consistently under-fed between 2011 and 2013[12], while at the same time between one third and a half of the food produced globally on an annual basis is estimated not to reach a human stomach due to food wastage.[7, 14]

In the mature developed economies of the world, such as those of the North America, the EU and Australasia, food wastage is largely due to waste taking place toward the retail and consumer end of the supply chain.[15]The latter is primarily related to unhelpful retail practices, such as confused date labelling, sales promotion cultures and crop rejections on aesthetic grounds; consumer behaviour; and hospitality industry over procurement and supply. On the other hand, in developing world countries wastage occurs closer to the producers[15] and is largely an issue of food losses through poor handling of produce in harvest and inadequately engineered infrastructure for the storage, transport, distribution and marketing of food. However, although food waste through retail practices and consumer behaviour is currently relatively low in the newly emerging economies of the world, there is a growing concern that increasing affluence in the more advanced developing nations, such as China and India for example, will lead to similar levels of waste to those already experienced in the mature developed economies.[15]In particular there is already evidence of this trend in the hospitality industry where a culture of ‘abundance’ often results in oversupply at functions and events including weddings, banquets, celebrations and conferences.[16, 17]

Food wastage is not only a tragedy for the 842 million people who currently live with hunger, but because of the high-demand relationship between food and water, energy and land-use, it is also a missed opportunity, in terms of unnecessary environmental degradation, and a waste of natural resources that could otherwise be utilised in alternative human endeavours.[7, 18] The World Resources Institute (WRI)[15]estimates that the land area used to produce wasted food worldwide is as big as Mexico, and that around a quarter of the water used in food production is squandered annually through food that does not reach a human stomach. Additionally, nearly a quarter (23%) of total worldwide fertiliser use, one of the primary consumers of energy for food production, is lost unnecessarily due to food wastage. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, if global food wastage was a country then its total emissions would place it in third position behind China and the USA.[19]The scale of the direct economic cost in global terms is also not trivial, at approximately $750 billion per year it is equivalent to the 2011 GDP of Switzerland or Turkey.[20]At the individual farm level in the emerging economies of the world the loss of income from food wastage is a substantial brake on development that would help enable a shift towards a more food secure world.

Losses of food produce from field to market in the developing world are particularly high in the case of perishables such as fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and dairy, and this is often exacerbated by temperature in the warm countries of the tropical and sub-tropical regions. In sub-Saharan Africa and India for example, losses can reach 50% annually for perishable fruit and vegetables alone.[7, 21, 22]Tanzania provides a case in point with up to 25% of milk production deteriorating to the point at which it becomes wastage in the food supply chain[21], and some 97% of meat sold in the country is warm, having never come into contact with refrigeration.[23]Indeed a lack of appropriate cooling within the field, store and transport vehicle, and at the point of sale, is a significant hurdle to effectively connecting farmers with market options and higher income streams in these countries.[24, 25, 26, 27]Across Africa as a whole, the total value of lost food is US$4 billion per year, [28]and similarly in India the total is around US$4.5 billion annually.[21, 22]This not only undermines both food security and food safety, as well as being an unnecessary use of scarce resources, but is likely to become of increasing concern as projected climate change impacts put greater stress on agricultural yields in these regions.[29]