Barriers to sufficient food abound

Barriers to sufficient food abound

There are several potential barriers to feeding the world's growing population, and most come down to issues of policy.

THERE are several potential barriers to feeding the world's estimated population of 9 billion people by 2050, and most come down to issues of policy.

According to a chorus of experts speaking on the issue in recent weeks, agriculture can feed an additional 2 million to 3 million people over the next 40 years, given certain changes to the global framework of food and agriculture policy.

"We've got lots of food in the world," Cornell University professor Per Pinstrup-Andersen said April 10. "The problem is inappropriate policies, not food supply."

Pinstrup-Andersen, the 2001 World Food Prize laureate, concluded that the world can produce enough food to feed the burgeoning populace, but global food policies and politics are major impediments. He cited wildly fluctuating food prices as a major challenge, noting that volatility will likely increase in the coming years due to climate change, speculative market activity and biofuel production.

Pinstrup-Andersen estimated that roughly 2.9 quadrillion lb. -- 12 zeros -- of food are lost each year throughout the distribution system, an amount he said could easily feed those extra 2 billion people in the next four decades. While acknowledging that it is unrealistic to expect to capture 100% of current food loss, some could be saved through better policies and management.

Research presented during the national meeting of the American Chemical Society appears to support that supposition. Kansas State University dean of agriculture John Floros noted that 4 lb. out of every 10 lb. of food produced in the U.S. is wasted at some point in the food chain.

"We will need another 'Green Revolution' to feed the world by 2050," Floros said, referring to the development of high-yielding and stress-tolerant hybrid seeds and other similar agricultural innovations of the 1960s. "That will mean scientific innovations, such as new strains of rice, wheat and corn adapted for a changing climate and other conditions. It will also take action to reduce a terrible waste of food that gets too little attention."

Floros said estimates from many developing countries indicate that as much as half of the food harvested is lost before it ever reaches consumers due to improper storage and handling.

On the other hand, developed nations such as the U.S. see a different kind of waste, with the average American family throwing away some 20 lb. of food each month, including food that is uneaten and spoiled as well as food that is thrown away after cooking. Floros said government estimates indicate that the average family of four tosses more than $2,000 worth of food each year.

Food waste goes far beyond the product itself and includes the water, energy and other resources spent in producing the food in the first place. Floros concluded that solving the food waste problem in the developed world will require a different approach from the one needed to deal with post-harvest losses in the developing world.

Food-sector experts like Floros and Elanco president Jeff Simmons also point to the challenge of feeding an expanding middle class. Simmons told reporters last week that studies suggest that as many as 3 billion people will reach income and wealth levels associated with middle class socioeconomic status, meaning more people will want to eat "better" food.

"Millions of people in developing countries are becoming more affluent," Floros explained. "In the past, people were satisfied with food that filled them up and sustained life. Increasingly, they will demand food that is convenient to prepare, certified as safe and highly nutritious and tastes good."

Pinstrup-Andersen agreed, noting projections that indicate that by 2030, two-thirds of the world's middle class will live in Asia, compared to just 28% in 2009. Those shifts in economic means will lead to shifts in diet, meaning fewer grains and more animal proteins.

"We need to pay a lot of attention to the new middle class in Asia," he said, concluding that more money must be invested in research and technology, including genetic modification.

Pinstrup-Andersen also called for more investment in rural infrastructures in developing countries, more uniformity in trade policy, clarity in laws governing land acquisition and stronger antitrust legislation.

A report released last week by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the London School of Economics argues that nations must focus on advancing research and development of plant and animal genetics as well as new agricultural practices to mitigate the effects of climate change and to serve the exploding global demand for food.

"Our international agricultural innovation infrastructure is grossly underfunded and too focused on near-term challenges and current technologies," ITIF senior fellow Val Giddings said. "The system, as it is today, will not deliver the agricultural technologies necessary to address the severe climate impacts we face."

Editor's Note: This is the first part of a two-part series focusing on the changes necessary to feed a growing global population. Part 2 in the series will focus on the ITIF report, "Feed the Planet in a Warming World."

Volume:85 Issue:15

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