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2020 view: Global opportunities, challenges for meeting food needs

Food security, safety, trade, sustainability and economics: government sector and private sector collaborative efforts are critical to achieve successful outcomes!

2020 is a new year, the beginning of a new decade, and it provides amazing opportunities yet also amazing challenges for food producers and consumers. Food security, food safety, food trade, food sustainability and food economics each come to top of mind as we begin the new year, each with associated opportunity and challenge. The question is if we are ready to seize the opportunity while also addressing the challenges in these dynamic times? Are we leveraging the private sector and government sector expertise and roles for the betterment of our global society?   

The global population1 is currently estimated at 7.75 billion with 4.64 billion, or 60%, living in Asia and 1.34 billion, or 17%, living in Africa. Global population growth is about 1.05% annually. The largest population growth is in areas of the world where local food production is not meeting local food needs. Further, the growth is in some of the least developed areas with the least infrastructure. Thus, the challenge – how do we all work together leveraging our natural resources and global knowledge to achieve a safe and sustainable food secure world?   

Food security:  Population growth is tempered with the food security reality as reported by the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the “2019 - The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World”:  1) “… the number of people who suffer from hunger has slowly increased … more than 820 million people in the world were still hungry in 2018 …”. This statistic does not bode well for food security near term, especially considering population growth in regions that are the least food secure.   

Further, and some may say alarmingly, are the potentially devastating consequences for food security due to the spread of African Swine Fever (ASF). ASF is a viral animal disease affecting pigs with up to 100% case fatality, and is broadly spreading in Asia with reported cases in China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Timor-Leste and Indonesia.2 Collectively these countries represent well over half the global swine production. Regionally tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of pigs have been exposed to ASF, so the true production impact is still to be fully determined. ASF spread in Africa, Eastern Europe and into Western Europe has been less so, but still impactful. Some observe that ASF is present in countries representing about 75% of global swine production. This is now having an enormous adverse impact on food security. The death loss of pigs due to ASF will result in tons of less meat available globally. Importantly, ASF is not a food safety or human health issue – the virus is not zoonotic. Unfortunately, it is transboundary and significantly impacting local food security. 

The challenge, how do we better leverage our knowledge and capabilities to maximize food production and control disease spread?                    

Food safety:  Consumers expect their food to be safe. Dramatic improvements have been made in the past years, and decades around food safety. Yet according to WHO: 1) Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, causes more than 200 diseases – ranging from diarrhoea to cancers, 2) An estimated 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years (DALYs), 3) Children under 5 years of age carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with 125,000 deaths every year, and 4) Diarrhoeal diseases are the most common illnesses resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, causing 550 million people to fall ill and 230,000 deaths every year.3 

The current level of illnesses and deaths should be unacceptable today. We need to further leverage our global knowledge, especially into the developing world, in addressing food safety. Improved practices at the food production, harvest, transport, handling and preparation can each dramatically reduce foodborne illnesses and deaths. Food safety starts with best practices at the farm level and all the way through to human consumption. Considerations need to be given for a food safety mindset at well as a systems approach with a focus on the highest risk areas and interventions targeted to decrease risks. The food chain is continuing to evolve in many parts of the developing world. Yet, even the most developed countries also have opportunity to reduce foodborne illnesses. Coordinated action globally, that includes the private and government sectors, is needed to improve all food safety outcomes.  

The challenge, are we acting upon our knowledge of food safety risks with targeted interventions that reduce the risks?  

Food trade:  Global trade is estimated by the World Bank at $17.8 trillion dollars. The World Trade Organization (WTO) notes about 10% of trade is agricultural products. The meat trade of beef, pork and poultry (broiler and turkey) in 2018 was 29 million metric tons traded at a value of $78.5 billion.4 Additionally, dairy and aquaculture are key food protein sources. Grains as soybeans, rice, wheat and corn are also critical sources of food globally and traded extensively.  

Food trade, and the growth of global value chains, help meet nutritional needs of food consumers globally. Further, trade provides for a wider array of food choices during all seasons of the year.

Trade, and its further growth, is critical to feeding the growing worldwide population so that natural resource rich areas can produce food for natural resource limited areas. However, trade barriers need to be removed in the areas of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures, technical barriers to trade (TBT) and tariffs and quotas; each having disruptive and market distorting impacts. The market distortions ultimately increase consumer food costs and decrease consumer choice. 

The challenge, how do we advance trade facilitating measures that open markets and eliminate barriers?

Food sustainability:  The global natural resources of fresh water and arable land are limited. Sustainably feeding a growing global population means we need to be more efficient in the production of each kilogram of nutrition. Sustainability starts with understanding the facts such as relevant contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, such as for the U.S., which are: transportation at 28%, electricity at 28%, industry at 22%, commercial and residential at 11%, and agriculture at 9%.5

In addressing emissions, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases are the key concerning gases. To properly address impact, one must understand the gases in the context of how much they are in the atmosphere, how long they stay in the atmosphere, and how strongly they impact the atmosphere? All gases are not equal, for example, some remain in the atmosphere for a few years and some for thousands of years. Some have a natural ‘cycle’ such as from a forage, to feed for a cow, to methane emission, to photosynthesis by a plant as an energy source; and the cycle renews along with a food product of milk and meat.  

Going forward, there needs to be a better understanding of the total lifecycle analysis regarding emissions. Each sector needs to act based upon the most recent scientific understanding and each sector needs to determine how they reduce their contribution. The goal needs to be increasing the unit of output per the unit of input and accelerating the decrease in emissions per unit of nutrient consumed globally, thus reducing agriculture’s and food’s environmental footprint.

The challenge, how can agriculture complete objective science-based total life cycle analyses for proper understanding and appropriate action to minimize agriculture’s contribution? 

Food economics:  Food affordability is the underpinning factor for availability and consumer choice. Globally consumer spending for food ranges from about 6% to 56% of their income. For the low-income food consumer, trade-offs in a family budget for housing, transportation, medical and education are made daily. If pork, rice or egg prices increase from 5% to 50% that means not buying something else in order to feed one’s family. This is real life today in the developing world as basic food prices increase.

The challenge, how can food become more affordable for all, while providing a livable income for farmers?   

2020 view summation:  The global opportunity based on 7.75 billion people’s food needs is defined and the global challenges are known. Balanced and nutritious diets will require animal-sourced and plant-sourced foods that include food animal products, aquaculture, grains, vegetables and fruits. How do we prioritize and work collaboratively between the private sector and government sector to expedite addressing the global food and nutrition challenges?

Food security is achieved through approval and adoption of innovation that increases supply. Food safety is achieved through a systems approach with interventions that reduce risks. Food trade is increased through removal of barriers. Food sustainability is achieved through improved production efficiency. Food economics via affordability is achieved through the collective achievement of the aforementioned.     

Governments have the critical role to implement policies, laws and regulations that support the adoption of innovation and that facilitate trade. Governments need to work to eliminate the barriers that inhibit agriculture innovation and the flow of food trade. The private sector, from farmers through the food chain, needs to accelerate their adoption of innovation and best practices. The sector needs to more rapidly facilitate the sharing of best practices globally that are adapted to the local situation. The challenge is great, but with innovation adoption and open food trade the ever-increasing consumer food needs globally can be met safely, sustainably and affordably!    

  1. https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/#region
  2. http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/programmes/en/empres/ASF/Situation_update.html
  3. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/food-safety
  4. Global AgriTrends
  5. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#agriculture
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