Act Now, or Food Shortages Could Become a Problem for Us All

It is time that we start asking ourselves important questions for how these challenges to our food supply will be addressed in years to come, and that the solutions are appropriate and equitable...

Food insecurity is a problem often discussed with the developing world in mind. Just in the past few years, there have been record floods in Pakistan, a destructive heatwave in Russia, recurring droughts in the Sahel region of Africa and disruptive storms in the Philippines to name only a few.

But these concerns are increasingly affecting the developed world too. A report from the United Kingdom Parliament, quoted in a recent Guardian article, warned about "a long term risk to the security of UK food production" due to insufficient resources being invested to protect farmland from flooding. At the other extreme, the state of California (which is the biggest agricultural producer in the United States) has been in severe drought for a third year, with farmers deciding not to plant farmland due to water shortages and consumers worrying about a potential lack of supply and food price increases.

It is time that we start asking ourselves important questions for how these challenges to our food supply will be addressed in years to come, and that the solutions are appropriate and equitable:

  • We are increasingly eating more meat and dairy products, which in turn, requires an increased production of feed grains, already used heavily in the production of biofuels. Will we be able to continue producing enough of this grain to meet our nutritional, cultural and energy needs and, if so, how?
  • Smallholder farmers grow about 80% of the food consumed in sub-Saharan Africa, yet they are some of most vulnerable groups and often live in regions which are most likely to be adversely affected by a changing climate. What is the potential for "climate-smart agriculture", in particular win-win solutions which help them adapt to changing growing conditions while simultaneously contributing to mitigating future emissions as well?
  • Since smallholders have been affected by stresses of climate change and weather extremes in the past, how can we harness their local knowledge and ensure that they are involved in the debate on how to adapt to climate change?
  • Whilst we know that the private sector is active developing conventional and modern seed varieties that aim to increase productivity and yields, what is the role of the private sector and research community in providing more nutritious food?

Debating difficult questions like these will be essential if we are to overcome the complex and interconnected challenges facing our agricultural sector. The solutions must be implementable at scale as well as being holistic enough to balance competing demands and build more synergies with complementary ones.

Many leaders will be converging on London this week to discuss these very topics at the Economist's "Feeding the World" conference. I want to challenge these leaders from business, from government, from non-profits, from environmental groups, from the research community and from farms themselves, and I hope that they seek to address these tough questions.

As well this week, the Montpellier Panel - a high-level group of European and African experts in the fields of agriculture, food security, and global development - will meet to set out their joint agenda for the year ahead (Disclaimer: I chair this panel in my role as Director of Agriculture for Impact). The group looks specifically at issues impacting smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and what can be done to improve their food security and livelihoods.

At the heart of the matter, we must find innovative solutions to food insecurity which are based on the superficially simple concept of producing more food from less resources and without damage to the environment. This is referred to as "sustainable intensification", and it has the potential to help us overcome the triple challenge we face of a growing population, a scarce supply of resources and the looming threat of climate change.

While many of the answers are still unclear, I offer four routes to advancing us closer to this shared goal: invest in innovation, develop people's knowledge, open up markets and mobilise strong leadership. Avoiding a global food problem in the future will take everyone's concerted effort today.

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