Challenges to feeding the world from now to 2050  

So many ideas; so little time! Climate change looms. It affects every person alive today, and will continue its effects over those not yet born. It’s evil twin, world hunger, is joined at the hip with extreme climate events. Just when we thought we were getting a handle on world hunger, the war in Ukraine deals a devastating blow to food security. Many voices caution us. Here are some different perspectives:

The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.” – Norman Borlaug, biologist and humanitarian.

Agroecology offers the ability to do what governments, corporations and aid agencies have failed to do: end hunger.”—Raj Patel (1)

“guilt and shame have no place in people’s diets. The key to a positive food system transformation will be people embracing more plant-based foods, and fighting the developed world’s idea that meat should be at the centre of every meal.”–Anthony Warner (2)

I find it discouraging that the subjects of food and hunger have become so political. Most religions call for us to feed the hungry. Do we need further prodding?

Global climate change affects hunger and food distribution in many ways. It not only affects food security but also limits availability of clean water and increases susceptibility to infection. Climate change increases food insecurity by decreasing yield and nutritional quality of crops. These effects in turn feed undernutrition and malnutrition. Two climate advisors propose a 5-point plan to address climate and hunger:

(1) focus attention on providing “nutritious, secure, and low-carbon food” to increasing population pressures,

(2) help small farmers by providing them with tools such as advanced seed varieties,

(3) decrease emissions per animal and rely more on alternate proteins,

(4) improve how we produce and use fertilizers with an emphasis on precision farming, and

(5) reduce food loss and waste.

These recommendations combine ideas from both sides of the agricultural political divide. They are sure to displease advocates from both camps, but we are running out of time. If I live, I will be 100 years old by 2050. Many of my readers will not be old enough to retire. Will we be ready?

War and famine loom over our effort to tackle world hunger. Despite warnings of gloom and doom, life expectancies have risen around the world. Devastating famines still exist Yemen, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Madagascar. The war in Ukraine threatens to disrupt shipment of grain to countries in need. Negotiations might permit grain shipments through ports on the Black Sea. I am not holding my breath. Political instability in the East and West could lead to further disruption of food supply chains.

packages of Beyond Burger and Beyond Meatballs, sources of alternative proteins
Can alt proteins save the world?

Lowering dependence on animal protein is essential to solving hunger and climate challenges. A consensus is building despite some resistance. A little decrease won’t do. I proposed a 50% reduction of farm animals worldwide by 2035. It will take a R&D moonshot paired with a massive shift in eating habits to meet this goal. This month I offered alternate proteins from insects, plants, and cultured meat. Replacement of animal protein with insect protein shows promise in Africa and Asia. Plant proteins are the most logical replacements in the Western world. Cultured meat may find a home in Asia and Europe. Fungi provide another source of alt proteins. Quorn has been around for a while. It seeks its niche in the vegan, chicken-nugget category. Fungal fermentations are producing butter and meat. Upcycled brewery ingredients show potential to replace animal-based proteins.

Agroecology or advanced technology? It may be too late for agroecology to dominate agriculture. But it does have its place in some situations. Likewise, organic agriculture has a place to provide crops in certain locations. More natural techniques are unable to keep pace with population growth. Technology promises increases in crop yields to increase food availability and farmer incomes. An unfortunate byproduct of technology favors the wealthy while impoverishing the farmworker. Governments in poor nations must avoid overemphasizing export markets while strengthening local production. Advanced seed varieties, synthetic fertilizers, and appropriate machinery all contribute to increased yields. Keeping food grown in a location to meet regional needs improves food security. Keeping money paid for crops in the community helps improve local economies.

Diversification of crops and farming techniques is critical to maintaining food security. The collapse of the Sri Lankan government comes from the convergence of many factors. I first read about trouble brewing in this island nation when its crops failed. Sri Lanka went all organic, banning the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. I do not know enough to understand the full effect of the all-organic policy on the country’s collapse. But it is a cautionary tale. Complete reliance on an single technology or its rejection is unwise.

Governmental action is necessary to provide food security for a nation. Poorer nations do not have the tax base of wealthier ones, but protecting the food supply must be a top priority. Subsistence farming is not enough to meet the needs of a country’s population. Countries need appropriate technology to advance food production. Foods associated with a nation’s cultural heritage must become a priority. Food processing for regional distribution helps prevent food waste and enhance food security. Nutritious foods using local ingredients must be available and accessible. The health of mothers and children is critical for a productive society. Clean water is also necessary.

In the West, wealthier nations must focus on containing the effects of climate change. The recent heat wave shows Europe that reducing emissions doesn’t solve its problem. Other greenhouse-gas producers must lower their emissions to prevent global calamities.

Report Cards on these topics provide mixed results. Here are my grades for the world-wide response to the challenges we face

World hunger B—needs more attention, but recent progress has been encouraging,

Global climate change D—treated as a tomorrow problem as many governments ignore the threat or give it only lip service,

War and famine D—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looms large with little hope for an early truce,

Lowering dependence on animal agriculture I—will alternative proteins trigger enough dietary change?

Agroecology/Advanced technology C—no appropriate mix of approaches to provide food security

Governmental action I—so variable around the world it is impossible to grade

Final reaction. I remain skeptical that we will achieve success. How long will it continue to be a tomorrow problem?  I don’t intend to be around in 2050. Will Millennials (ages 26-41) and Zoomers (11-25) develop solutions before it is too late?

Next week: How important are vitamins for our health?

References

(1) Patel, R. 2021. The power of agroecology. Scientific American 325 (5):34-45.

(2) Warner, A. 2021. Ending Hunger: The quest to feed the world without destroying it. Oneworld Publications, London, England.

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