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Is there enough food for a world of 7 billion?

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 7 Nov 2011 11:35 GMT
Author: Katie Murray
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By Katie Murray

The world’s population recently crossed the 7 billion people threshold.  We have entered a new era of endless possibilities with our growing interconnectedness and exponentially fast growth of innovative technology.

But 7 billion people raises a lot of fear and concern about whether the world is capable of sustaining such a large number of people.  Is there enough food for all 7 billion of us? 

Last week the world’s population was less than 7 billion and 925 million people did not have enough food to eat, according to the World Food Program.  Of those 925 million people, 98 percent lived in developing countries. 

The numbers look bleak - but it is not because we are incapable of feeding everyone. We are. 

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the world produces enough food to provide every person with more than 2,700 calories per day, more than the recommended amount for an average adult.  People go hungry not because there is not enough food but because our agricultural system is inefficient and the effects of climate change on our farming system are becoming increasingly devastating.

Everyone might not agree on climate change, but one thing is for sure - the world has endured an unprecedented amount of severe weather in the last few years. 

SEVERE WEATHER

Over 900 natural disasters occurred in 2010, 90 percent of which were weather-related, according to Munich Re, a global insurance company.  One significant disaster was the Russian heat wave, which killed around 20 percent of the wheat crop in the country and had a direct effect on the past year’s spike in food prices. 

Recently, Thailand, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Cambodia were struck with extreme flooding, and severe drought swept over Kenya and Somalia.  The lives lost have been terrible enough, but on top of that, people’s livelihoods have worsened significantly with heightening food insecurity. 

The weather shocks destroyed many farmers’ harvests, either flooded or dried large amounts of land and ruined water sources.  Food, land and water are now even scarcer in these places, and as a result the price of each commodity increased.

While inflation in food prices affects everyone in one way or another, people in poorer countries generally suffer more because they rely heavily on agriculture and spend a larger percentage of their income on food. 

The impact of climactic events, like extreme flooding and drought, is not evenly dispersed around the world.  The most vulnerable areas of the world - developing countries - are disproportionately affected. What’s worse, these countries have contributed relatively little to carbon emissions. 

According to the 2011 U.N. Development Programme Human Development Report, the carbon footprint of the poorest billion people on the planet is just 3 percent of the world’s total footprint.

Food security is a particular problem in so many developing countries prone to severe weather because they rely heavily on agriculture for income.  When severe weather hits, crops are easily destroyed and people no longer have food to sell or to eat.

A SILVER BULLET?

So what is to be done? Is there a silver bullet to deal with the problem of growing food insecurity?

It doesn’t look that way, particularly as non-governmental organizations, governments, grassroots organizations and individuals have been trying for years now to find it, without much success.

What may be needed instead are many small solutions, targeted to the specific needs of people in different parts of the world. 

Information is key.  So many farmers in developing countries do not have access to information they need to make informed decisions on what crops to grow in the face of changing weather patterns, and when to grow them.

Bruce Campbell, director of the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security research program, backed by the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR) and the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP), thinks farmers could adopt more efficient farming strategies if they had better information about changing weather and water resources.

 “At the moment yields are way below the potential yields because farmers don’t have access to vital weather information,” he said.

Organic farming might have an important niche in developing countries.  Studies have shown that if the soil conditions are right for organic farming, it could improve yields, help maintain natural irrigation systems, and produce more resilient and durable crops.

Organic matter works as a moisture buffer in the soil, allowing for better irrigation, Campbell said. That could help give some farmers a better chance of surviving weather shocks and climate change. 

Using genetically diverse crop species also is helpful, he said, because they can better adapt to changes in weather and soil composition.

Growing organically requires more man power, but the crops can sell for higher prices. Campbell predicts that the organic market will continue to grow in the future, and farmers who sell organics will benefit from the increase in revenue. 

Another way to improve food security may just be to make sure what’s harvested isn’t lost. Where there are poorly developed food handling, packaging, and storing systems - a common problem in developing countries - from 15 to 50 percent of food harvested is lost to things like waste, spoilage, pests and other problems, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Information, organic farming, rethinking waste - small steps, maybe, but they may add up to a bigger solution.

Katie Murray is an AlertNet Climate intern.

 

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