A food crisis is a sharp rise in rates of hunger and malnutrition at a local, regional or global scale, for reasons which may include increased food prices or poor crop yield due to drought or flooding. There is a high probability that we are already facing the onset of a huge food crisis, as suggested by the “perfect storm” idea: with increasing food demands from a growing population, coupled with decreasing production of food, a crisis point will be reached (the “perfect storm”) which will cause immeasurable social and economic damage. This is happening now, with the stagnation of agricultural production across Asia, rendering 41% of the population food insecure (Ray et al., 2012). As well as this, 2018 saw an 11% rise in the number of food insecure people globally (World Food Program, 2018).The reliance on northern Asia and South America for production of staple crops such as rice, maize, soybean and potato (National Geographic, 2012) is further indicative of the vulnerability of food supply across the world.
Intensification of agriculture across existing arable land has been suggested as a vital way to prevent the food crisis worsening. Similar to the concept of “land sparing” in conservation ecology, it involves maximising agricultural production by using technologies which may include GM crops, pesticides and herbicides, or more efficient irrigation. This has benefits for both productivity and biodiversity (when other land is prioritised for conservation, Phalan, 2001; Hulme, 2013), and would prevent agricultural expansion into new land, which is not feasible on our finite planet. However, in focusing on the “silver bullet” agricultural intensification presents (being seen by many as the only way to prevent worsening of the food crisis), other properties of the system aren’t been given enough attention.
Food security: “the condition in which all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs” – UN Committee on World Food Security
The food crisis has food security at its core. But it is not determined by supply alone. There are many social, economic and environmental factors which deserve consideration when thinking about providing the right nutrition to the global population – These include waste, competition for land with biofuels, speculation in food markets influencing prices, extreme weather events, conflict and dietary change (UNEP 2008). Because of this, the whole system we currently have of producing and distributing food must change.
Lessons from the past
The Green Revolution represented an enormous system shift in many areas around the world, where agricultural practices changed from techniques based on traditional growth and technology, to integrating high yield varieties of staple crops and chemical fertilisers (Evenson & Gollin, 2003). This change lead to an increase in the caloric intake per capita in the developing world by 13-14%, and reduced the number of malnourished children by up to 7.9% (Evenson & Gollin, 2003). As well as this, cereal crop supply tripled, dropping food prices. Support grew for agricultural intensification: it seemed to be justified by the the social and economic benefits it multiplied.
However, it wasn’t all good news. Biodiversity across plantations reduced with expanding monocultures, herbicide pollution plagued the soils and ground water sources depleted rapidly with increased irrigation.This trade-off between increasing human wellbeing and declining quality of supporting services (such as soil quality and water provision) is known as the “environmentalist paradox” (Raudsepp-Hearne, 2010). The Green Revolution went some way in improving our agricultural system, but it was clearly not sustainable. But how about if agricultural intensification was done more sustainably? I wonder what innovative title this new technique should have….
As the name suggests, sustainable intensification (SI) is an agricultural system in which food production is increased, while the state of the environment is maintained and agricultural expansion prevented. This is done in practice through the use of integrated pest management, irrigation water management and conservation agriculture, amongst other techniques (Pretty, 2018). It’s uptake in recent years has led to a potential tipping point; a further small increase in farms incorporating SI could rapidly lead to a global food system shift to more sustainable practices (Pretty, 2018). Putting sustainability at the heart of food production will move the focus away from increasing food production at the cost of everything else, and instead aim for a balance of outcomes to ensure agricultural land is not further degraded in the future.
The incorporation of GM crops may also play a role, as the need to promote drought-resistant, pest-resistant crops in the poorest areas of the globe has been highlighted as a way to improve productivity, particularly in Africa which has historically lagged behind in agricultural development (Royal Society, 2009). SI cannot solve the food crisis alone: change must occur across the whole system, with innovations in food storage and processing, diet change and technological innovation making food more accessible and affordable.
Food security and accessibility
Generally, the global poor, who rely heavily on staple foods such as rice and wheat, are most at risk of malnutrition. The 2008 food price hike saw wheat and rice prices almost doubled, pushing the number of hungry people worldwide to over 1 billion (European Commission, 2011). A similar increase in 2011 forced another 44 million people into poverty (World Bank, 2012). These events highlight the importance of food price in food security and how interconnected the global system is, as it depends on factors including speculation on the financial market, oil prices and land competition (European Commission, 2011).
For the developed nations of the world, where food affordability is less of a restriction, diet has become a multiplier in exacerbating the problems of the poor. The spread of the “western” diet, characterised by an overabundance of calories and macronutrients (Myles, 2014), is projected to cause a 32% increase in per capita greenhouse gas emissions from an income-dependent diet shift (Tilman & Clark, 2014). Between 1965 and 2000 (the so-called “livestock revolution”), meat consumption increased in developing countries by over 400% – alongside an increase in deforestation, methane production and nutrient runoff into wetland ecosystems (Chakravorty, 2007).
Looking at diet in terms of environmental impact shows that a key to solving the food crisis is in personal dietary change: by incentivising a switch to a more sustainable Mediterranean, pescatarian or vegetarian diet, as could be done across the western world, land can be used for growing crops for human consumption rather than animal consumption.
The forthcoming food crisis is a multi-disciplinary problem, encapsulating food production, accessibility, storage, waste, diet, income and environmental degradation. It therefore requires a multi-disciplinary solution. Agricultural intensification has been identified as one such solution, which was used during the Green Revolution of the 1960s to bring millions out of poverty. However, since then population has grown substantially, and with it, income growth and diet change, all in a context of unpredictable climate change. The solution to this crisis is not in increasing food production alone, but in developing a system where sustainability, in terms of social, economic and environmental factors, are considered equally along with it. Sustainable intensification offers a starting point for this, but will only be successful on a global scale if integrated with effective controls on commodity prices, innovative green technologies for agricultural efficiency, and a dietary transition towards plant-based foods.
Phalan, B., Onial, M., Balmford, A. & Green, R.E. (2011) Reconciling food production and biodiversity conservation: land sharing and land sparing compared. Science, 333(6047), pp.1289-1291
Mueller, N.D., Gerber, J.S., Johnston, M., Ray, D.K., Ramankutty, N. & Foley, J.A. (2012) Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management. Nature, 490(7419), p.254
Chakravorty, U., Hubert, M.H. & Nøstbakken, L. (2009) Fuel versus food.
Tilman, D. & Clark, M. (2014) Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature, 515(7528), p.518.
Raudsepp-Hearne, C., Peterson, G.D., Tengö, M., Bennett, E.M., Holland, T., Benessaiah, K., MacDonald, G.K. & Pfeifer, L. (2010) Untangling the environmentalist’s paradox: why is human well-being increasing as ecosystem services degrade?. BioScience, 60(8), pp.576-589
Pretty, J., Benton, T.G., Bharucha, Z.P., Dicks, L.V., Flora, C.B., Godfray, H.C.J., Goulson, D., Hartley, S., Lampkin, N., Morris, C. & Pierzynski, G. (2018) Global assessment of agricultural system redesign for sustainable intensification. Nature Sustainability, 1(8), p.441