The holidays in the United States are a time for gatherings of friends and family, and the center point of almost all of those gatherings is a feast.
But there are people around the world who are food insecure, despite agriculture’s many productivity advancements.
The Farm Foundation Forum’s Nov. 19 webinar, “Global Agricultural Productivity and Hunger: Are We Doing Enough?” looked at this problem through new eyes to see just how we can quantify and address hunger in the world in a more sustainable manner.
There are many different approaches to the hunger problem, but just increasing production is not the entire solution, explained Ann Steensland, Global Agricultural Productivity Initiative coordinator and GAP Report author at the College of Agriculture and Life Science, Virginia Tech University. The GAP Report was launched a decade ago in the wake of a global food price crisis, with the goal of increasing productivity in agriculture as a pathway to food and nutrition security.
“The question is, ‘are we doing enough?’ and I think the general consensus is, ‘not yet,’” Steensland said. Agriculture, she said, accounts for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and 71% of freshwater use, while soil erosion and desertification have cut land productivity in half around the globe. She added that 150 million children under the age of 5 are stunted, while there are also 38 million children who are classified as overweight or obese. Food, though, is just a part of a much larger agricultural economy.
Take, for instance, the expanding pet food industry. If only U.S. dogs and cats were counted as a sovereign nation, Steensland said, they would be the fifth largest consumer of animal protein in the world. Like it or not, domesticated animals must be factored into food security conversations.
Steensland said taking a good hard look at productivity, rather than just measuring yield is how to find sustainability. Productivity, she said, tracks the changes in how efficiently inputs are transformed into outputs. Total Factor Productivity increases when more crops are produced but the amount of land, labor and fertilizer declines or stays constant. It’s a measure of efficiency, she said.
Progress in TFP comes in high-income countries that can afford improvements in seeds and mechanization and more scientific practices for nutrient management and animal care, she explained, without putting more acres into production.
For farmers in areas like sub-Saharan Africa, though, the only way to increase productivity is to put more land into production, and that isn’t a long-term environmentally sustainable solution. The GAP Report pointed to a combination of technology, best farming practices and an attention to the ecosystem to provide sustainable productivity growth in the long and short term.
“We cannot grow our way to food security and food stability,” she said. Policy has to help by putting forth real solutions to reducing post-harvest loss and food waste. Investment in public agricultural research and development and Extension, and embracing science-based technology can also help.
Vimlendra Sharan, director of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization Liaison Office for North America, said reducing loss is critical to reaching food and nutritional security without sacrificing the considerations of producers and their resources.
“In all of human history, it has always been a quest for abundance,” he said. “We always want more for our families and our nations. This quest made us forget resources are limited.” We’re reaching the low levels of our resources, or the margins, he added, and that means we must increase our efficiency in production.
If one-third of the food produced globally is lost after harvest, after we’ve used the resources to grow it, and it never reaches human consumption, that is morally, ethically and economically wrong, Sharan said.
Food loss and waste is different from country to country and region to region. The point at which you concentrate your efforts across the value chain to reduce loss must meet the needs of producers and consumers. For example, if you want to put policy in place to reduce waste where food security is an issue you would concentrate closer to the farm in the value chain, because there’s more impact. In richer countries, like the U.S., you would focus policies closer to the consumer level.
“We need to adopt strategies to the country and align objectives in line with the right point in the food supply chain,” Sharan said. “All policies do not have the same impact. You have to understand that if you put the wrong policy in place, it may not give you the objective you’re working toward.”
Anna-Marie Ball, director of external affairs at HarvestPlus, addressed the role that biofortification plays in addressing global hunger. It’s not just a matter of quantity of food, but quality of the nutrition to meet the human body’s needs.
“We know that 1 in 9 people face hunger,” Ball said. “In Africa, that’s 1 in 5. We know that 2 billion people do not get quality food, so therefore they experience hidden hunger. They don’t get the vitamins and nutrition they need.”
Ball said low incomes typically mean nutritious diets are out of reach for many people.
“When food prices go up, people will protect their food staples,” she said. “Starches make you feel full. You will sacrifice other food sources so that you can feel full. So, even though dietary diversity is what we want, it’s out of reach for many people.” So, the answer can be supplementation, fortification of foods, or biofortification.
“Biofortification of staple foods can address hunger and hidden hunger, but it’s an up-front investment,” she said. “It’s the process of increasing the density of the vitamins and minierals in a crop and that can be done through conventional crop breeding or through agronomic practices, like fertilization.” The point of biofortification is that the crop has enough micronutrients in it so that when it is consumed on a regular basis it will impact human health.
Biofortification can help the most vulnerable of our population, women and children, and it can be climate smart, too.
“The biofortified crops are bread to be climate smart and piggyback breeding efforts to address climate change,” Ball said. Biofortified dry edible beans, for example, are more drought and heat tolerant than other beans, but have been bred to have more iron in them.
For human health, working toward biofortification of crops to produce more iron, vitamin A, or Zinc can help reduce cognitive and physical stunting and improve vision, immune functions and more.
Feeding the 10 billion in the next 30 years is going to take more than a “produce more” approach, according to the webinar panelists. Now it’s time to start targeting policies and research to fixing the food system in the big picture. And making sure those policies match with the population we’re trying to help.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.