Solutions to food insecurity are often framed within a narrow analysis of future global supply and demand for food. For example, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global production of food crop calories must rise by 60% by 2050 to cater for a projected world population of 9.8 billion. With little new arable land available, most of this increase will have to be achieved through higher yields.
In the absence of a fuller context, such projections may encourage solutions which presume that higher food production reduces hunger. The necessary note of caution lies in the fact that current global per capita food production already comfortably exceeds the FAO hunger threshold. Yet 815 million people continue to experience hunger.
Macro-analysis loses sight of the right to food at household level, the looming collision between agriculture and environmental limits, the constraints within conflict zones, and the political power structures which impede the equitable distribution of food resources. Clearly, there are multiple solutions to food insecurity.
The two oppositional dimensions that feature most commonly in debate are industrial agriculture and small-scale farming. Whilst richer countries may naturally seek to apply new technologies to their existing industrial model, the dilemma for poorer countries is acute, given the transformation that is first required.
Hunger is one consequence of a troubled global society unbalanced by extreme inequality and the proximity of environmental limits. Solutions to food insecurity can therefore succeed only if they reinforce broader strategies for sustainable development.
This perspective sees a positive and crucial role for the world’s 475 million small farmers who are responsible for feeding 70% of the world’s population. The World Bank estimates that growth of rural economies accelerates poverty reduction four times faster than other sectors. Small farmers have modest footprints on the environment.
Although the optimum model for modernising small farms in poor countries remains the subject of much debate, their potential to be part of the solution to sustainable development is increasingly accepted.
One direction pioneered with success in Malawi involved subsidies to buy improved seeds and fertiliser. However, this has been criticised on environmental grounds and for committing the government to a long-term spiral of expenditure linked to oil prices.
An alternative view seeks to build on the existing model of low input farming, developing cultivation skills in soil regeneration, nitrogen fixation, natural pest control and agro-forestry. Described as “agro-ecology” or “eco-farming”, this approach reaches out to the very poorest farmers, whilst retaining the potential to raise yields substantially, according to UN research.
The cause of agro-ecology is greatly reinforced by its affinity with the low cost mitigation and adaptation measures urgently sought in response to climate change. Agro-ecological methods, making the most of local natural resources, may offer a more promising platform for “climate-smart agriculture” than the intensive industrial model. They are also more attuned to protecting the seed diversity of vital crops and plants.
Interpreting food security solely in terms of global aggregate grain production prompts solutions which threaten to superimpose industrial agriculture and its bio-technologies on the low-yielding “peasant” farms of Africa and South Asia.
Many donor governments and agencies promote this vision by facilitating powerful alliances, introducing agribusiness corporations to government bodies in “public-private partnerships.” Beneficiary countries are expected to enact legislation that meets private sector expectations on land tenure, intellectual property rights and tax.
The most significant of these groupings is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations in 2006. AGRA aims to enable 30 million African farmers to double their yields by 2020.
Whilst major corporations and their bio-technologies must have a key role to play in global food security, there are two broad reservations from the perspective of poorer countries.
The first is the risk of importing an environmentally unsustainable model. Industrial farming is associated with land degradation, depletion of freshwater resources and loss of biodiversity. It is also a significant contributor to climate change, accounting directly for 10%-12% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The second issue of concern is the tendency for control of industrial agriculture to be concentrated in a small number of global corporations. Recent consolidation in the agribusiness sector has created three companies – Bayer-Monsanto, DowDupont and ChemChina (Syngenta) – that control 60% of commercial seeds and 71% of global pesticide sales. These businesses also possess a near-monopoly of patents on crop genomes. Similar consolidation is likely to occur in the farm machinery sector.
Such domination is relevant to global food security because corporate interests are ultimately aligned with shareholder value rather than the elimination of hunger. Public-private partnerships in related sectors such as water and energy have a poor track record in reaching the most disadvantaged households.
Another concern is the tendency of dominant market operators to restrict the independence of captive farmers. Accustomed to selecting and saving their own seeds, farmers will have to purchase “climate smart” and other improved seeds for every planting.
Governments too may find their policy options constrained; for example through pressure to introduce genetically-modified (GM) crops. Although several countries in Africa are conducting tests, only four have adopted GM crops for commercial purposes. Claiming higher yields and lower chemical inputs, GM crops feature prominently in potential macro-solutions to the global food crisis.
Infrastructure and Risk Management
Whatever development model emerges for small-scale farming, integration with external markets remains a formidable obstacle in poorer countries. There is general agreement that political commitment to invest in rural infrastructure in developing countries is a critical condition for food security. Roads and storage facilities are necessary to link produce to local markets and to urban consumers. Access to electricity and efficient irrigation potentially transforms all aspects of farm management.
The African Development Bank is a strong advocate for the agriculture sector, committed to invest $24 billion over the next 10 years. It aims to move farming up the value chain through food processing capacity, so that agriculture is perceived as a business opportunity by the younger generation.
The risk of variable weather conditions can be addressed by methods which are commonplace in modern farming. For example, a critical mass of meteorological stations is rarely found in the poorest countries. Innovative products of micro-finance are being developed to improve the availability of credit and crop insurance to small farmers.
Risk management tools cannot eliminate extreme misfortune that strikes at local communities and individual households. Whilst embryonic in most of the poorest countries, the provision of a social safety net fulfils the obligations implicit in the right to food and is likely to feature in national food security plans for ending hunger.
Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme is one model that attracts praise, releasing prompt cash payments to farmers and pastoralists, triggered when predetermined thresholds of drought are crossed.
more Food Security briefings (updated May 2018)
Food Security Definition and Global Divide
Right to Food
Sustainable Development Goal for Food
Causes of Food Insecurity
Governance of Food Security
Source material and useful links