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 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 690 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, the solutions to food insecurity are complex.
The title of the UN Food Systems Summit, convened by the UN Secretary-General in September 2021, conveys how this complexity can be approached. A “food systems” approach envisages policies that combine objectives for food, agriculture and nutrition, while protecting social, economic, and environmental sustainability.
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.
It remains to be seen whether systems theory can overcome the entrenched divergence of opinion about solutions to food insecurity. This exists between those parties who insist that global food security depends on the advanced technologies of agri-business and those that view such technologies and their corporate owners as drivers of environmental breakdown and social injustice.
Although the optimum model for modernising the world’s 475 million 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. For those who fear the consequences of globalising industrial agriculture, this potential builds on qualities of husbandry that have declined in richer countries.
This perspective seeks to develop cultivation skills typical of low input farming, 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. Small farmers have modest footprints on the environment.
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.
Whatever development model emerges for small-scale farming, improvements in land tenure and 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 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.
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 should 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.
International food aid is not a sustainable solution to hunger but it has a vital humanitarian role to play in countries which cannot sustain their own social protection arrangements.
Advances in the technologies of every element of the “farm-to-fork” food supply chain are so fundamental that it is inconceivable that they have no role to play in improving the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in poorer countries. These technologies are owned by very large international corporations, with whom governments must work in partnership.
Many donor governments and agencies promote this vision by facilitating 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 aimed to enable 30 million African farmers to double their yields by 2020.
Formerly known as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, CGIAR is a global network of 15 research centres dedicated to reducing poverty through a food secure future.
Whilst these corporations and partnerships are in a position to offer invaluable advice to developing countries, the track record of agri-business presents a serious obstacle. For example, it is all too obvious that the risks addressed by CGIAR centres are dominated by those created by the industry itself.
Three-quarters of the world’s food is derived from only twelve plants and five animal species. Agriculture is believed to contribute over 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Shrinking biodiversity and the impact of climate change are disproportionate threats to food production in Africa and South Asia.
A further 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 just four companies that control 60% of commercial seeds. 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.
more Food Security briefings (updated March 2021)
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