Intro Food Security

Enough to feed the world?

Food security is the foundation of all human development, but in many parts of the world it is still lacking. Yet capacity is not the biggest problem: it is possible to produce enough food to feed the growing global population. Among the solutions needed to ensure everyone has access to sufficient nutritious food are better technology, logistics, and infrastructure – and this is where the private sector can play a vital role.

In the 18th century, English economist Thomas Malthus, warned that the growth of the population would outstrip the capacity of the planet to feed it. An economic pessimist, Malthus did not take agricultural and technological advances into account.

In the 1960s, the “green revolution” built on high-yielding crops, chemical fertilizer, and irrigation, lifting farm productivity around the world. The green revolution now needs to increase food production without impacting biodiversity and harming the environment.

Key to this development has been significant increases in the production of staple crops, with cereals – the edible grains of cultivated grasses – foremost among them. Today, maize, wheat, and rice provide roughly two-thirds of the calories consumed by people globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Population growth has flattened in many countries, though the United Nations (UN) projects a world population of nearly 10 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, global poverty rates have declined.

Food insecurity is an ongoing threat

But humanity is not out of the woods. According to the FAO, between 2019 and 2022 the number of people facing hunger in the world rose by more than 122 million to about 735 million. Using a wider measure, the UN estimates that about 30 percent of the global population, or 2.4 billion people, faced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2022, meaning that they did not have constant access to food. Across low-income countries, two-thirds of the population is affected, with hotspots in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. On this trajectory, the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger, or chronic undernourishment, by 2030 will not be reached.

The main factors undermining food security in different parts of the world include economic and political instability, armed conflicts, weather extremes, and inequality. The UN also points to the resource constraints facing poorer farmers as they struggle to adapt to changing conditions.

Most recently, the war in Ukraine has triggered hikes in grain and energy prices that have exposed the fragility of global food security. Like the Covid-19 pandemic and climate-induced crises, the conflict has underlined the need for countries to build their resilience against shocks, including investing in modern food systems.

Producing sufficient food, either domestically or globally, is one thing. It is another thing to make sure this produce is made available in sufficient quantity, in a timely manner, as and when and where it is needed.

Dr. Komla Bissi, A senior adviser on agriculture, trade, and value chains to the Secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area

Moving food to where it is needed

According to Dr. Komla Bissi, a senior adviser on agriculture, trade, and value chains to the Secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area, there is generally enough food in the

world. But countries often lack the systems to move it from where there is a surplus to where it is needed, as well as the technologies and infrastructure to safely store and process it into the foodstuffs that people want.

“We have the capacity to produce enough food to meet our food security requirements at a global scale,” he says. “But producing sufficient food, either domestically or globally, is one thing. It is another thing to make sure this produce is made available in sufficient quantity, in a timely manner, as and when and where it is needed.” While Africa has enough land, water, and other natural resources to feed itself, it lacks appropriate storage technology and logistics, according to Dr. Bissi. It is often easier to import food products from outside the continent than from within Africa, he says. And while some countries have silos for storage, they do not have appropriate drying and cleaning systems, or temperature regulators and monitors. “Without these, you cannot know the volume of grain in the silo, let alone whether the quality meets human consumption requirements.”

An essential ingredient for social stability

Modern storage facilities enable countries to build up reserves of staple foodstuffs in times of abundance so that they can absorb disruptions. The lack of preparedness in some places has now been laid bare. “On the African continent, we did not realize that we had insufficient storage of food at individual country-level to be able to mitigate the effects of a pandemic,” says Dr. Bissi. “When the war between Russia and Ukraine started it was only then that we realized we did not have sufficient strategic reserves. At present, most countries in Africa have reserves that can barely take care of them for a month or two if there is any disruption.”

Maintaining food security is a prerequisite for social and economic development, even political stability. Its absence disrupts livelihoods, overstretches health services, and wastes human capital. In the most extreme cases, it leads to malnutrition, starvation, and social upheaval.

“No community or society can go hungry and still be able to function,” says Dr. Bissi. “There have been many situations in our part of the world where countries suffered riots and uprisings because of small increases in food price or the unavailability of food.”

While food insecurity often results from shortages caused by failed harvests or an interruption of trade, it can just as easily result from factors such as poverty, discrimination, or disruption that puts foods beyond reach for large numbers of people.

According to the UN, food security exists when all people have access to enough safe and nutritious food for an active and healthy lifestyle. This reflects how thinking about food security has evolved from focusing on the availability of enough calories per capita to looking at whether healthy diets are affordable for all. “Lack of food, lack of income, and lack of peace are the three things that drive food insecurity,” exlains Dr. Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

Increasing resilience and productivity

Ensuring food security means providing for the current generation but also, according to the UN, designing sustainable food systems that will deliver far into a future shaped by climate change.

Farmers around the world are already suffering from ominous shifts in the climate. More extreme weather events such as storms and droughts have devastated crops in some regions, or left livestock short of grazing land and water. Yields of some crops have been affected, especially in the tropics.

Longer-term changes in rainfall and temperatures risk rendering large areas of land unsuitable for agriculture or pastoralism, while higher carbon dioxide levels are expected to reduce the protein and micronutrient content of major cereal crops. Shifts in the distribution of pests and diseases will also harm agriculture in some regions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Farming is already one of the most unstable, volatile business enterprises there is, and climate change is making it even more volatile and unstable,” Dr. Haddad explains.

To reduce the risk of future crises, food systems need to become more resilient as well as more productive. Achieving this requires investment in areas including logistics and markets, growing a wider range of climate-adapted food crops, gene-editing to improve crop strains and livestock breeds, and precision farming methods that optimize the use of inputs such as fertilizer and water. Investments in handling, storage, and processing facilities are also important to reduce foodborne diseases and the presence of mycotoxins in staples like maize and wheat. Concentrating processing steps from intake to final product in one facility – often called a food park – helps to reduce food loss along the value chain from farm to packaged good. Fortification also plays a role in improving the nutritional value of staple foods. “Infrastructure and technology are absolutely critical,” says Dr. Haddad.

Lack of food, lack of income, and lack of peace are the three things that drive food insecurity.

Dr. Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition

local grains local grains Ensuring food security requires a stronger focus on local grains.

Food consumption has evolved

Another growing factor is changing diets. Rapid urbanization – almost seven in 10 people will live in a city by 2050 – are reshaping food systems, including a shift in demand from traditional foods towards diets with more meat and dairy products and more convenience foods.

“As well as being ready to produce sufficient food to feed the growing global population, we also need to be aware of globalization and changing food attitudes, especially driven by urbanization and the growing middle classes,” says Dr. Bissi. “More people are now looking for more easy-to-prepare foods. The way food is consumed has continued to evolve over time because of changing societal dynamics.”

In African countries, many people are moving away from traditional foods to easy-to-make foods, like pasta. “We need to be prepared for these dynamics. We need to enhance our food processing technologies to be able to meet this growing demand,” Dr. Bissi says. “The food must be made available in the way that people want to consume it.”

Dr. Bissi sees great potential for the 55 countries of Africa to improve their food security and bolster their economies by combining improvements in domestic food production and processing with expanded intra-continental trade. “We must enhance our domestic production so that we can feed ourselves. The current import bill for food into Africa is at USD 80 billion a year – money we have to borrow,” he says.

“As a continent we do not want to continue depending on the global community excessively for our food requirements.”

Countries making progress include Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, which have dramatically increased wheat and maize production in recent years to meet their own needs and export surplus to other parts of the continent. “Zimbabwe increased grain production from 200,000 tonnes a year in 2019 to a current level of 3.7 million tonnes. That enables the country to meet its own national grain requirements of about 2.75 million tonnes, and they have around a million tonnes of grain available for export,” says Dr. Bissi.

Rwanda, Ghana, and Nigeria are other African countries with successful food security strategies. In Asia, Bangladesh has achieved national self-sufficiency in rice and is emerging as a significant exporter of vegetables.

“These countries are putting in place systems at domestic level and working toward the export market,” says Dr. Bissi. But beyond production, they are also putting in place the infrastructure and technology to process food themselves. This is essential, as currently much of the food bill is for imported processed food, often based on raw food products that were grown and exported from African countries in the first place. This makes little sense, as Dr. Bissi points out: “Rice has to be milled. We’re not going to produce it in Nigeria and export it to the Netherlands or Switzerland to be milled.”

The world should be able to feed itself, but we need to work together. there is hope and there are opportunities.

Dr. Komla Bissi, A senior adviser on agriculture, trade, and value chains to the Secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area

Engaging the private sector

Dr. Bissi sees huge opportunities for the private sector to catalyze development in these areas, by developing and providing technology and financial solutions along the food value chain.

“We need to enable the private sector, not just domestically but also globally, to participate effectively,” he says. “No individual country can do it by themselves. In Africa, we have the environment and the youngest population in the world, but not the technology or the financing. The world should be able to feed itself, but we need to work together. There is hope and there are opportunities.”

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