In this video blog post, Evan Fraser sets out his solutions to global food problems.

Evan Fraser

Thanks to 2012’s terrible drought, food prices have shot up again across the globe. This was the third time in five years that bad weather (amongst other factors) has upended commodity markets, and thrust tens of millions into poverty.
While food prices today remain just below the critical threshold that many think will trigger riots, it will only take a small uptick in prices – say a continuation of the US drought into this year’s growing season – for things to become very dire indeed.

Feeding Nine Billion: A Solution to the Global Food Crisis by Dr. Evan Fraser

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This is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg. Many of the world’s top experts think that food, water and energy shortages confront us with a perfect storm that we will have to navigate while also contending with climate change, population growth, and ecological destruction.

Problems and solutions

But there are ways forward, and four types of solution stand out.

First, many people argue that if we want to avert apocalyptic famines, we are going to need about 50-100% more food by 2050 to keep up with demand. And this will require new science to give farmers the tools they need to boost harvests. But while this may be true, we cannot continue to repeat the mistakes of the last 50 years where we have allowed industrial monoculture that depend on fossil fuel to dominate our croplands.

Rather, what’s required is to develop new types of partnerships between farmers and scientists to help develop locally appropriate solutions to local problems. This is especially true for small scale African farmers, many of whom only produce about 20% of the food they could (see Figure S4a for maize for example pdf) due to a lack of soil nutrients, good quality seeds, and better equipment. Second, we must develop better ways of distributing the food we already produce. Today, there is enough food for all (according to UN statistics, there is about 2800 calories per person per day right now) but lots of our food never gets eaten by humans. This is because the people who need the food the most can’t afford it.

To correct for this problem, an important strategy is to store more food. Over the last fifty years, the world has adopted what can only be described as a ‘just enough just in time’ food system. In fact, in six of the last eleven years, we’ve consumed more than we’ve produced and our buffer (defined as the amount of food we have left over from one year to the next) is dropping. While this system may be economically efficient, it’s not resilient or robust. So we need to store food close to vulnerable communities to help them survive when the weather turns ugly.

Third, we need to become much more efficient in how we produce food. Currently, modern agricultural practices produce a vast amount of food but to do so they require large amounts of energy and water. So we need policies that encourage farmers to use practices that conserve the soil, water and energy. Sometimes this is called ‘ecological intensification‘ or producing ‘more crop-per-drop‘. For large-scale farmers this will involve everything from conservation tillage (practices that reduce the number of times a farmers needs to cultivate the ground) to using precisions GPS systems to fine tune fertilizer applications so no inputs are wasted.

Finally, we need to foster more robust and sovereign local food systems that are biologically diverse and better connect farmers and consumers. Local food systems are important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because they buffer consumers from the dangerous swings in commodity markets.

More than science

But each of these solutions involves trade-offs and none is complete. For instance, critics of using science and technology point out that in the past well-meaning agricultural breakthroughs have resulted in major problems for people and planet. So many reject that science can ever play a constructive role.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, critics of local food point out that in a world of six billion urbanites there is no way that local food production will provide enough food (and especially grains) to meet our future demands. And so proponents of ‘Big Ag’ reject local solutions as naive.

But while both criticisms have their place, it’s vital that we not get bogged down. What we need to do is develop a blended portfolio of approaches much like in an investment portfolio (or an ecosystem) that is strongest when it is diverse.

It is only then that we’ll have the required range of tools to meet the challenge of feeding nine billion.

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About Evan Fraser

Evan Fraser is the Canada Research Chair of Global Human Security at the University of Guelph. He is the author of Empires of Food and runs and its Facebook page where you can learn more about these topics and engage in online discussion forums.

Watch more food security videos on BBSRC’s Food Security Research playlist on YouTube.

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