As politicians talk big on the climate, one issue that all nations seem unable to grapple with, is that of food supply. Where will our food come from?
This question is of huge concern because the quantity of food actually demanded at present, and is only a fraction of what will be demanded (needed) in the future. The UN estimates that the world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion persons in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050.
At present population growth and climate change are the current and most likely issues to place continual stress on the food system in the long run. As these stresses continue to increase, the cost to the consumer increases.
Other sharp shocks can do significant damage to food systems, such as pandemics (COVID-19) and conflict (the Russian invasion of Ukraine). Both, have the potential to be more common occurrences in the decades to come with the environmental pressures brought on by climate change.
The short-run effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have largely been felt on warehouses and supermarket shelves. On the other end, the problems are not quite so obvious and are brewing.
Environmental issues: Soil and food production
That other end is the production of food, with approximately a third of the world’s soil degraded, and this could rise to 90% by 2050 without action.
The causes of soil degradation vary, the main issues globally are desertification, climate change, the loss of biodiversity and population growth. However, pollution, run-off, erosion, and incorrect agriculture usage also contribute.
Along with other interconnected issues that affect food production. Human society is faced with a historically unique period of population growth, due to a dramatic decline in death rates coupled with constant fertility rates in much of the world. Population growth today consists of lower morality but high birth rates.
This has undoubtedly led to a huge increase in food being demanded in a short period of time, as fertile land decreases.
At present, the demand for food has seen agricultural land expand with the logging of forests and clearance of swamps.
This competition for usable land directly causes environmental issues such as insufficient biodiversity and increasing climate change.
On the one hand, Controls on population growth are desperatly needed in order to sustain the planet but the controls will result in a downturn of the current economic system. The current economic system relies on younger people and exponential growth to contribute to pay retirees pensions.
The impact of Conflict: the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Conflict places its own unique stress on food systems. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has placed increased strain on a food system still creaking due to the effects of the COVID pandemic.
Ukraine is known as being the breadbasket of the world (The Economist, 2022). Whilst this conflict has no climate/environmental origins more conflict will arise due to environmental degradation.
Foreign policy argues that conflict will be less the direct kind but that climate change and environmental degradation will play a significant role in fueling tensions—particularly in conditions of resource scarcity—by compounding existing political, socioeconomic, and security risks (Foreign Policy, 2022).
What we know is there are some troubling times ahead in terms of politics, policy, and migration.
Manufactured food and technology
Manufactured food provides some theoretical solutions to many of these problems. Lab grown meat and plant food can be manufactured but we do not know if these solutions would be better for the environment until mass production is well under way.
Mass production is by extremely energy and resource intensive. As a solution to this crisis it is limited in scope.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) specifies four dimensions of food security. These are food availability, food access, food stability and food use/utilisation.
New, existing, and emerging technologies can address the four dimensions of food security. For example, genetic modification, methods for improving soil fertility, and irrigation technologies can increase food availability (UNCTAD, 2017).
Population control – This requires unpopular measures such as the very direct taxation on family sizes or indirect methods of discouraging citizens from having families. Through behavioural instruments for example.
Population control means ending growth, capitalist systems require population growth. Pension systems need a continual supply of younger workers to pay for the pensioners of today. Therefore, population growth requires an upending of capitalism to replace it with another system. A big task!
Technology – Investment in food technology provides some solutions. A lot less land is needed now than in the past to grow the same amount of food, efficiency gains are also far greater. Look at the use of the mechanical plough and in the 21st century drone technology to conduct yield analysis.
Technology offers a lot of potential in terms of increasing yields, shrinking resource usage, and reducing post-harvest losses. It also presents risks, as often the most fertile land identified by scanning technologies is land used as forest or wildlife ecosystems.
Diet changes also have the potential to offer part of a solution to the issue. This has not been discussed above but I bring it into solutions as diet changes are very important to solving this crisis.
Consuming insects instead of meat is one option pre-covid that was pretty much very intensely discussed in food circles and researched on this blog. It provides one option of increasing food supply. However, over consumption is a real risk and most countries already suffer issues with lack of diversity and fewer insects. Consumption of insects will be unsustainable in the long run and place strain on other parts of the food system.
Avoiding meat and dairy reduces global emissions, which has the possibility to in turn increase food supply indirectly. Vegetarian and vegan diets are growing in popularity often due to health benefits. The catch here are that vegetarian/vegan diets need to be balanced to make sure the correct nutrients are being consumed so as to avoid malnutrition.
It is important to state that nearly all of the above options to policymakers to increase food supply are only able to be enacted by richer countries.
One thing we do know is that our supermarket shelves will continue to look sparse. Richer countries need to work through and together with NGOs and international organisations in order to guarantee future food security, without this, the question of where will our food come from, will evolve to become where can we find food.
Biblography and sources of interest
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Davies, L. (2022) ‘Millions at risk in South Sudan as Ukraine war forces slashing of aid’, The Guardian, 14th June [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/jun/14/millions-at-risk-in-south-sudan-as-ukraine-war-forces-slashing-of-aid-world-food-programme (Accessed 24 June 2022).
Harter, F. (2022) ‘“Marching towards starvation”: UN warns of hell on earth if Ukraine war goes on’, The Guardian, 17th June [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/jun/17/united-nations-wfp-hell-on-earth-ukraine-war-russia (Accessed 24 June 2022).
Holmes, O. (2022) ‘US announces plan to build silos on Ukraine border to export grain’, The Guardian, 15th June [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/15/us-build-silos-ukraine-border-export-grain-food-prices (Accessed 24 June 2022).
http://encyclopedia.uia.org/en/problem/unsustainable-population-levels (n.d.) Unsustainable population levels | The Encyclopedia of World Problems [Online]. (Accessed 18 November 2021).
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Michael Fakhri and Sofia Monsalve (2017) ‘Ukraine helps feed the world – but its farmers, seeds and future are in danger’, The Guardian [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jun/13/ukraine-farmers-seed-food-crisis (Accessed 24 June 2022).
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Ranganathan, J., Waite, R., Searchinger, T. and Hanson, C. (2018) ‘How to Sustainably Feed 10 Billion People by 2050, in 21 Charts’, [Online]. Available at https://www.wri.org/insights/how-sustainably-feed-10-billion-people-2050-21-charts (Accessed 5 September 2022).
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The Encyclopedia, of World Problems, and & Human Potential (n.d.) ‘The role of science, technology and innovation in ensuring food security by 2030’, p. 55.
Tisdall, S. (2022) ‘Apocalypse now? The alarming effects of the global food crisis’, The Observer, 21st May [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/21/apocalypse-now-the-alarming-effects-of-the-global-food-crisis (Accessed 22 May 2022).