Nearly 1 billion people around the world suffer from hunger. Considering that we already produce enough food to feed the whole planet, this should no longer be a problem. But there are a number of factors that get in the way, including inefficient use of water, fertilizers and crop rotations.
That’s why Paul C. West and a team of researchers developed a set of ways to improve global food security.
“Our aim in writing this paper was to do an analysis that highlights that the opportunities and challenges to create a sustainable food system are concentrated in a small set of crops and places,” West, co-director of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota, told TreeHugger. “Targeting actions in these places can have not only local, but also regional, and in some cases global impact.”According to their report, tightening up on a number of key leverage points would provide enough calories to nourish 3 billion people while also taking environmental welfare into account:
- Close the yield gap
By 2050, 120 million hectares of natural habitats will be converted to farming in developing countries, the World Wildlife Fund estimates. In many parts of the world, current agricultural land is not reaching its potential, yielding 50 percent less than what it could produce. Closing the gap between what is being produced and what could be produced would both reduce the need to clear land for agriculture and feed 850 million people. The next points address how this gap can be diminished.
- Use fertilizer more efficiently
At TreeHugger, we’re not big fans of synthetic fertilizers, but the reality is that they are used in large quantities around the world. There is some good news: based on previous studies, West and his team estimated that the use of fertilizers with nitrogen and phosphorus on wheat, rice and maize crops could be reduced by 13-29 percent and still produce the same yields. Further efficiency could be gained through adjustments in the timing, placement and type of fertilizer.
- Raise low water productivity
Water is a major issue, and we’ve written about it many times. Improving irrigation systems and planting crops that use less water would be an effective way to tackle this. For example, rice and sugar cane are among the crops that need the most water. But it’s not simple to change the types of crops grown since farmers make decisions of what to grow based on market values, International Food Policy Research Institute Senior Research Fellow Lawrence Haddad pointed out to TreeHugger. One way to encourage change would be to provide economic incentives, but that can change based on regional differences and cultural tastes.
- Target food for direct consumption
A lot of caloric efficiency is lost when crops are converted for animal feed and other non-food uses. If these crops were used directly to feed people, West and his team calculated that they could provide enough calories for 4 billion people. In some cases, this would mean changing where certain crops are grown, but like point number 3, changing crops isn’t straightforward. Farmers grow crops that will ensure that they and their family can eat, whether that means eating their own crops or selling them to be able to afford food. “Lots of assumptions are made in this study: that people are willing to change their diets; that people in wealthy countries are willing to take significant measures to reduce food waste; that poor countries have the political and economic means to rectify yield gaps,” said Dr. Carol Barford, director of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin.
But West had a response to this: “It would be very naive to assume that diets could radically shift soon. In fact, the trend toward more meat consumption is happening in many parts of the world. Our main point here is that the amount of calories that we already grow but feed to animals is a *huge* number of calories. Even small changes in diet can have a profound impact.“
- Reduce food waste
Globally, 30-50 percent of food production goes to waste because of inefficient preparation or inadequate storage facilities. The United States is one of the biggest culprits for this and needs an agricultural land base that is 7 to 8 times larger than a land base in India to compensate for this waste. Reducing food waste in the United States, India and China could feed 413 million people per year.
While West’s study provides some areas which need to be considered by policy makers, the study does not delve too far into economics.
“The research focuses on food availability, but I would say that most of the problem of hunger is around food access —do people have enough income to purchase food?” Haddad, of IFPRI, said in an email. Haddad writes that a discussion of global food security should also address the different needs of higher and lower income groups, maximize resilience of the food chain in the face of climate change and social conflicts, and minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
To be fair, West did acknowledge that his article fell short of addressing food access and nutrition, but he added, “It does address many of the key aspects of creating a sustainable food system using low-tech tools, including using fertilizer to boost production in food insecure areas to benefit the people in those areas as well as be less dependent on the major breadbaskets, minimizing waste, as well as reducing the environmental impacts through changes in management practices that increase efficiency. Access, nutrition, and cultural preferences all need to be addressed in concert with the aspects we addressed.”
The complexity of issues like food security is the reason hunger is such a prevalent issue in the 21st century. Tackling hunger will take a multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary approach.