Photo: In Jordan Syrian refugees residing in host communities outside their tents in Mafraq governorate. Families must get by with the little water and electricity that is available to them. © Alessandra Blasi/UNDP. - Photo: 2017

Amid Plenty, Billions Still Face Food Insecurity

By Phil Harris

ROME (IDN) – As wealth and well-being continue their inexorable course towards increasing concentration in the hands of fewer and fewer, an estimated 795 million people still suffer from hunger, and global food security is threatened by climate change and mounting pressure on natural resources.

With the world’s population expected to rise to almost 10 billion people by 2050, global demand for agricultural products will increase by 50 percent over present levels, posing a serious question mark over the capacity of the world’s agriculture and food systems to sustainably meet the needs of this mushrooming global population.

This, in a nutshell, is the thrust of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report on The Future of Food and Agriculture released in Rome on February 22, which warns that “mankind’s future ability to feed itself is in jeopardy due to intensifying pressures on natural resources, mounting inequality and the fallout from a changing climate.”

The report optimistically believes that the planet’s food systems are capable of producing enough food to satisfy the needs of its inhabitants but only on condition that food systems undergo “major transformations”. Otherwise far too many people will still be hungry in 2030 – the year which the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda has targeted for the eradication of chronic food insecurity and malnutrition.

“Without additional efforts to promote pro-poor development, reduce inequalities and protect vulnerable people, more than 600 million people would still be undernourished in 2030,” says the report. In fact, the current rate of progress would not even be enough to eradicate hunger by 2050.

According to FAO, there is little scope for expanding agriculture’s use of more land and water resources, meaning that the production increases needed to meet rising food demand will have to come mainly from improvements in productivity and efficiency in the use of resources.

Ruling out any “business-as-usual” option, the report argues that “major transformations in agricultural systems, rural economies and natural resource management will be needed if we are to meet the multiple challenges before us and realise the full potential of food and agriculture to ensure a secure and healthy future for all people and the entire planet.” 

It warns that “high-input, resource-intensive farming systems, which have caused massive deforestation, water scarcities, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, cannot deliver sustainable food and agricultural production.”

The core challenge, says FAO, is to produce more with less, while preserving and enhancing the livelihoods of small-scale and family farmers, and ensuring access to food for the most vulnerable.

“For this, a twin-track approach is needed which combines investment in social protection, to immediately tackle undernourishment, and pro-poor investments in productive activities – especially agriculture and in rural economies – to sustainably increase income-earning opportunities of the poor.” 

The report calls for a shift to more sustainable food systems that make more efficient use of land, water and other inputs and sharply reduce use of fossil fuels, leading to a drastic cut of agricultural green-house gas emissions, greater conservation of biodiversity and a reduction of waste.

This, it says, will require more investment in agriculture and agri-food systems, as well as greater spending on research and development to promote innovation, support sustainable production increases and find better ways to cope with issues like water scarcity and climate change.

Along with boosting production and resilience, equally critical will be creating food supply chains that better connect farmers in low- and middle-income countries to urban markets – along with measures which ensure access for consumers to nutritious and safe food at affordable prices, such as such as pricing policies and social protection programmes.

FAO points the finger at losses and waste as significant factors in current inability to meet people’s food needs. Globally, it reports, around one-third of all food produced is either lost or wasted somewhere along the food chain.

In low-income countries, significant levels of food losses are said to occur at harvest and during post-harvest handling, owing to poor infrastructure, low levels of technology, a limited knowledge base and lack of investment in production. Food losses also tend to be caused by managerial and technical constraints in harvesting, storing, transporting, processing, packaging and marketing.

In North America, Europe, Japan and China, FAO says that around 15 percent of food is lost or wasted during the distribution and consumption stages. This percentage is lower in North Africa and Central Asia (11 percent) and much lower in Latin America, South and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (5.9 to 7.8 percent).

Meanwhile, the FAO report notes that with the trend towards an increase in the feminisation of agriculture, women may be presented with new, albeit limited, opportunities but their burdens are also likely to increase.

Women have always constituted a large part of the agricultural labour force in most sub-Saharan African countries, but the trend towards agricultural feminisation is especially prominent in the Near East and North Africa and in South and Central Asia. Between 1980 and 2010, the share of women employed in agriculture increased from about 30 percent to 43 percent in North Africa, and from 35 percent to 48 percent in the Near East.

The growth in women’s share of agricultural employment is also apparent in a number of Latin American countries, including Chile, Ecuador and Peru.

Changes in food systems towards a greater role for commercial farms are expected to create more paid employment opportunities for women outside of family farms, but there is evidence that women working on commercial farms and related supply chains tend to be concentrated in labour-intensive, low-skilled jobs.

According to FAO, the role of women in agriculture can be empowering “if their input and decisions hold more sway at home” but their workloads may also be aggravated because infrastructure and institutions in low-income countries are rarely adapted to supporting working women. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 February 2017]

Photo: In Jordan Syrian refugees residing in host communities outside their tents in Mafraq governorate. Families must get by with the little water and electricity that is available to them. © Alessandra Blasi/UNDP.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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