On “Creating a Sustainable Food Future”

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The World Resource Institute is currently working on a report entitled “Creating a Sustainable Food Future”. Its adequately-chosen subtitle is “The great balancing act”. Here are the issues:

The problems:

  1. by 2050, “available worldwide food calories will need to increase by about 60 percent from 2006 levels if everyone is to be sufficiently fed.”
  2. “the world needs agriculture to contribute to inclusive economic and social development.”
  3. “the world needs to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment and natural resources.”

The reasons:

  1. higher demand: Population is going to increase from currently 7 billion to 9.3 billion in 2050. and obviously currently poorer regions get richer and thus want to shift to from a cereal to a meat diet, e.g. China does this already now.
  2. Growth in the agricultural sector would drive employment of a potentially substantial part of society, and can generate benefits for women.
  3. we should all know why: water stress, ocean dead zones, etc.

The observations/suggestions/lessons:

It is basically the objective of the report to try and find a solution to all three problems. A first (utopian) observation of the report is that, even if all food currently produced was to be distributed evenly across the expected 9.3 billion people in 2050, then still everyone would fall short of the required daily calories intake by 200 kcal, around a tenth of the necessary, daily calories. Consequently, in order to cover the basic needs of all, society has to produce more food. How much? The report’s “projection implies a 63 percent increase in required crop calories from 9,500 trillion kcal per year in 2006 to 15,500 trillion kcal in 2050. The result is a 6,000 trillion kcal per year “gap” between production in 2006 and the need in 2050.” This requires the same increase in crop production during the next 40 years as we have seen during the past 40 years.

So first thoughts here are already troublesome: It is extremely doubtful that the objective of the report, namely the creation of benefits for women, is really achievable. The report notices this itself. Since women already make up the majority of agricultural workers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, it is unlikely that there will be the significant positive impacts for women that the report talks about. Where should they come from? And clearly, the main problem is that in sub-Saharan Africa there is already significant water stress holding up the growth in the agricultural sector, and this will only increase substantially during the next years. In a recent article, Luca Marchiori, Jean-Francois Maystadt and myself have shown that there is already national and international migration in many sub-Saharan countries as a result of weather variations that affect agriculturally-dependent countries the most. Food production is only expected to worsen in those countries according to studies by Eric Strobl and his co-authors.

Then, it is unlikely that yields in the agricultural sector increase like they did during the past 40 years- fertilizers are already used nearly everyone and in may places to a maximum. In addition, a chunk of the recent increase in agriculturally-used area (mostly grazing area) has come from cut-down tropical rain forests. The reason for using those areas for cattle or agriculture is obviously that they hold higher yields than other areas. Given the need to significantly reduce the destruction of the rain forest, and also the need for re-forestation in order to curb CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, it is also unlikely that we will see a similar increase in agriculturally-useful area as we had during the past 40 years.

So let’s discuss some possible solutions advocated by the WRI: They suggested a good, exhaustive list of clearly well-thought options that each adds little by little to improving the expected food shortage in 2050. My favorites:

  • “REDUCE OBESITY: In most of the world except sub-Saharan Africa, consumption of animal products is already high and leads to more protein intake than is necessary for human health” –> basically, everyone is getting fatter! Obesity is a serious social health problem nowadays, strongly associated with diabetes, heart failures, and also mental issues like depression and lost working hours. The WHO called it a “global epidemic”, with around 10% of the world population being obese. Social costs for these are enorm. Curbing obesity could be a double-divident policy: reducing social costs and increasing food for the rest of world.
  • “EAT FEWER ANIMAL PRODUCTS: Reduce the share of animal-based foods in a person’s daily diet”. Once you have read books like Animal Liberation, you might want to reduce meat intake for ethical reasons, too. (It’s just really difficult during summer BBQs…)
  • “REDUCE BIOFUELS” This obviously allows for more food production, and immediate basic needs should have preference over a small increase in climate change from reduced biofuels. Biofuels are currently losing out anyway, as impact on food prices and availability was considerable. Sort of reminds me of Mao’s problem with the Great Leap Forward…

Then there is a new report out, the “Reducing Food Loss and Waste” report. That seems to be a good report, too, well-done. Going to look into it, but not tonight…

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2 comments
  1. The 3 possible solutions advocated by the WRI indicate creating a sustainable food future is not only necessary for the hungry regions in the world. It is also necessary for the currently well-fed/rich!

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