Hunger played an important role in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that the UN set in 2000, with one of the targets aiming to halve the proportion of hungry people worldwide by 2015. This trajectory is likely to continue, as evident in a recent consultation involving the Committee on World Food Security that urged for the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition.
According to a UN Global Compact report, the food and agriculture industry accounts for 10 percent of the global gross domestic production that was worth US$70 trillion in 2011, while 38 percent of the land is dedicated to agriculture. This industry involves millions of businesses and is also the central means of employment for a large bulk of the world population, of which farming is the main starting point. As such, sustainable efforts in this area are integral for boosting economic stability, quality of life, employment and environmental health.
Staving Off Hunger
The need for food security is more pressing than before, especially when the world population is expected to grow from seven to nine billion by 2050. Its importance has been highlighted by Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, who will also be touching on the topic as a speaker at the upcoming World Health Summit Regional Meeting—Asia.
“Food security means you have food. You have access to it, you have no famines and it is affordable. If you don’t have that, people die and their health deteriorates,” she said. Yet, the prices of most basic foods are constantly increasing. Statistics from the FAO has shown that the Food Price Index has increased by more than twofold, from 90.4 in 2000 to 209.8 as at January, 2013.
While prices decline periodically, they never return to the baseline, creating a problem of affordability. There are five main factors causing the rise in food prices, which Ms Garrett has identified as speculation in food commodities or futures, country hoarding, biofuels, a growing middle class, and overall population growth.
Rising Food PricesFor starters, the volatility of the global speculation market has caused investors to speculate in corn and wheat futures instead. “The volume of speculation investors has gone up logarithmically in the last decade, because they’re looking for a safe haven for their investments, safer than a volatile real estate market, or general stock markets,” revealed Ms Garrett.
Elaborating on the relationship between protectionist measures and food prices, she added that the 2007 and 2008 food crisis was a result of India and Vietnam hoarding their rice supplies and imposing export caps. This sent prices skyrocketing, and “the result was a man-made, artificially manipulated price indicator that was way out of reach for hundreds of millions of people.”
Meanwhile, the growing focus on energy efficiency has also diverted the supply of agricultural crops to biofuels development. For instance, 40 percent of corn crops in the US are used for that purpose. This has led to a decrease in the availability of arable land for food crop production.
The growing middle class population, most noticeably in China and India, has led to greater prosperity and in turn, greater caloric intake and meat consumption. “Meat production, whether you’re talking about chickens or cows,” as Ms Garrett explained, “puts far more stress on basic grains and water supplies than vegetarian production. A lot of the food inflation is related to trying to accommodate basic agricultural meat production.” This is primarily caused by the use of supplies for animal feed rather than direct human consumption.
Lastly, food prices are further exacerbated by the growing human population, which has strained and limited the amount of arable land and water supplies available—all necessities for growing basic foods.
A Shared EffortWhile mitigation efforts may seem like a task geared towards the various governments, food security is an issue that involves all stakeholders within the food industry, including food producers, manufacturers and retailers.
These stakeholders can promote food security by focusing on sustainable production while reducing food loss and wastage. While sustainable sourcing requires adherence to social, economical and environmental standards, it will essentially conserve important resources like land and water for future food production.
Carol Schaffer, Berkeley, US
The private sector is also encouraged to source their ingredients from smallholder farmers, many of whom are among the world poorest. Working with smallholders will help link them to global markets, and create an integration that will eventually increase production, balance out supply and demand, and lessen price pressure in the process.
Smallholders often lack resources that can maximise their yield, reduce crop losses and improve quality. Long term investments from the private sector can help with the acquisition and implementation of technology like ICT application, irrigation systems and mechanized processing equipment, while imparting knowledge on new, innovative production methods.
The FAO has found that 95 percent of food losses in developing countries are unintentional and a result of financial, managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques, as well as storage facilities, infrastructure and packaging and marketing system that have insufficient capabilities. As such, access to these resources will greatly reduce food loss while enhancing the capabilities and productivity of smallholders.
Meanwhile, the responsibility is also on food manufacturers and retailers to reduce food wastage, large quantities of which happen due to inefficient practices such as inappropriate storage or uncontrolled portion sizes, in addition to a greater emphasis on appearances and confusion over expiry date labels.
At the heart of it, food security is an issue that affects the basic survival of humans. While governments play an influential role in facilitating trade movement and regulations, the responsibility is also on the private sector to invest in sustainable food production.