An Unsustainable and Insecure Food System

This project sits in the context of a currently unsustainable and insecure food system. Essentially the need to rapidly intensify global food production, coupled with climate change and the declining availability and affordability of the fuels, fertilisers, and other inputs, on which current agricultural systems depend; means we can’t continue on our current path. It demands the radical rethinking of the food system if a transition to a sustainable food system is to be made (Brisson et al., 2010) (Ragnarsdóttir K.V., H.U., & D, 2011) (Sverdrup & Ragnarsdottir, 2011) (UN-HABITAT, 2006).

The challenges to the sustainability of the food system are wide ranging and growing demand acts as an acute multiplier of those challenges. The global population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050 – with Africa (the most food insecure continent)’s population set to double in that time. As population growth outstrips agricultural production, countries are increasing net food imports. Net food imports to sub-saharan African countries have increased more than 60% in the last 10 years, and the greatest general increase in food imports has been seen in Asia – where food imports by volume increased 75% between the year 2000 and 2010 (FAO state of food and agriculture 2010). These transitions in demand and purchasing put huge pressure on the global agricultural system (FAO Food, Agriculture and Cities 2011).

The FAO estimates that for future global demand for food to be met, food production must increase by as much as 70% by 2050; yet in the decade spanning from 1997 to 2007 the average annual growth in world agricultural production was a mere 2.2% suggesting further stress on the agri-food sector will increase if endeavours to secure future demand are not made.

Global Hunger Index Map showing data for time period 2008-2012 (

Global Hunger Index Map showing data for time period 2008-2012 (

That said, food insecurity is already a current reality for many people. Annually more people die from starvation and malnutrition than from Malaria, Tuberculosis and AIDS combined (World Food Programme) . In 2012 it is suggested that some 842 million people on earth were estimated to be undernourished (Global Hunger Index 2011). The Millennium development goals included a target of halving (from 20% to 10%) the proportion of undernourished people between 1990 and 2015. Examining (in part) progress towards this target, the GHI (Global Hunger Index 2011 ) combines three indicators to score countries ‘hunger’:  the proportion of people who are undernourished, the proportion of children under five who are underweight, and the mortality rate of children younger than age five” . This map shows GHI scores from countries for the time period 2008 to 2012. This provides a visualisation highlighting that although the global situation is improving; with 23 countries GHI scores reducing by 50% or more; the 2013 world GHI demonstrates on-going problems, namely that 19 countries have levels of hunger that are “extremely alarming” or “alarming”. Examining progress over time, South Asia continues to have the highest (worst) score though has improved significantly since 1990 (Global Hunger Index 2011) .

Morgan & Sonnino (2010) recognise 5 trends that drive concern over food security: (1) Increasing food prices and increasingly volatile food prices. (2) shift from rural to urban associated with more environmentally damaging diets. (3) Increased recognition that food security is now a matter of national security. (4) Increasing effects of climate change on agri-systems. (5) Growing conflicts regarding natural resources including land, forests, oil, water etc. These trends provide a frame for further unpacking issues of food security:

(1) Food Prices

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in their Global Hunger Index 2011 there are 3 main reasons for food price increases: Biofuel production, Commodity Trading and climate change. There is a trend on increasing food prices. Even in the wake of the price peak of the 2008 food crisis (examined in more detail later in this report) food prices continue to climb; with the maize price high in 2011, when adjusted for inflation being more pronounced than that of 2008. Mean commodity prices are anticipated to be higher over the next decade than the former (From UN FAO World Food and Agriculture in Review).

Along with rising food prices, price instability and volatility is expected to continue as more pressure is felt from  energy markets including biofuel production and the food system is subject to the challenges of climate change including increases in weather shocks (FAO-The State of Food Insecurity in the World – 2011).

For the most part, during a food price spike, food doesn’t ‘run out’ – rather it becomes critically scarce; which has an impact on the way people access and afford food. Even in relatively wealthy countries like the UK the 2008 food crisis had an impact on the price of general cupboard items – tinned goods rose in price by 15%, and some items by more than 40% according to a BBC survey – incl. croissants up by 47.4% and ham up by 45.4% (FAO-The State of Food Insecurity in the World – 2011). Increasing food prices come with long-term impacts on the healthy development of the UK population as the less affluent shift to cheaper and nutritionally less valuable diets with immeasurable impacts early years cognitive development, education, and health (FAO-The State of Food Insecurity in the World – 2011).

Efforts to manage food price volatility are being put into place – in 2011 the G20 leaders launched AMIS – the Agricultural Market Information System, for corporations in the global agrifood system to form clusters and learning networks to share data, coordinate early warning systems for food security and vulnerability, increase awareness of food price developments, bolster existing systems and advance policy dialogues affecting food pricing. The uptake of AMIS remains voluntary (IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2011 ).

(2) Demographics and Changing Diets

The global population is urbanising. As rural populations are drawn towards urban areas, and urban areas absorb their rural backwaters, diets shift towards greater protein intake, which creates additional pressure on the agri-food landbase as meat is more resource intensive to produce. The average annual intake of meat for rural populations in the developing world is around 10.2kg per capita per year. This is more than tripled in urban areas where it is around 36.7kg per capita, per year. It is estimated that 7-10Kg grain is required for the production of 1kg meat (Food Matters, Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century – 2008). Already to service meat-hungry nations, globally some 3.7 billion hectares of lands (grazing, pasture, grain production etc) is devoted to raising animals. As demand for meat increases, expanding production of livestock puts pressure on world cereal prices and in demand for land and water.

The World Bank estimates that for cereals to meet the prospective demands of 2030’s projected population, cereal production needs to increase by 50%, and meat production by 85% from 2000 levels (World Bank Development Report 2008). The FOA suggests that this demand can be met 80% by increasing growing efficiency and 20% by the expansion of arable land (FAO How to feed the World in 2050). However growth in yields is difficult to bolster, having levelled out (from 3.2 to 1.5% growth rate) since the Green Revolution of the 60’s despite new technologies, suggesting a potentially insurmountable challenge to the agri-food sector.

One of the discourses associated with food security surrounds the idea that food poverty is a distribution problem as opposed to a supply problem. This argument compares global obesity with global hunger. There are currently in excess of 1 billion overweight people on earth of which some 300 million are obese (WHO 2004 Global Diet and Health Strategy). Obesity itself is a complex health issue – associated both with the opulence of the ‘Western Diet’ but also frequently found associated with nutritional poverty, wherein opting for a cheaper and more carbohydrate intensive diet can cause weight gain and illnesses like type II diabetes (WHO 2004 Global Diet and Health Strategy). In the UK some 61% aged 16 or over were found to be overweight or obese in a 2009 study – conversely the consumption of vitamins and minerals on average exceeded recommended levels (DEFRA Statistics Pocket Book 2011).

(3) Food Security = National Security

Food security is increasingly recognised as of concern to national security. Civil unrest is historically associated with people faced with difficulty accessing food and water. The 2008 food crisis is a modern example wherein civil unrest was seen in several countries including Bangladesh, Cameroon, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, Senegal, Somalia, the Philippines (BBC Special Report – the Cost of Food – 2010).

Conversely water represents an age-old battle for access and has been argued over for centuries. 145 countries currently share boundaries across water resources – lakes and river basins (not mentioning aquifers – the ‘invisible’ freshwater sources). Consequentially there are some 300 water agreements between nations. Nonetheless more than 30 countries have been involved in water wars where political disagreements over water have lead to military conflict (The Times Science Eureka #2 Water Wars (no longer online).

(4) Impact of Climate Change on Agri-Food Systems

Climate change can affect agri-food systems in many ways. For the most part it is discussed as a negative driver for agri-food, for example, it is estimated that climate change will cause a decrease in global rice production of 12% to 14% by 2050 (Achieving Sustainability in the face of Climate Change). Some do posit that climate change does offer new opportunities; extending the growing season, and geographic range of certain crops (for example the BBSRC consultation relating to food security in 2009). However for the most part adaptation of the agrifood system to climate change represents huge challenges including increased extreme weather events and unstable weather systems, the disrupting of native ecosystems, the reduction in maturing time for some species reducing yields and increased problems with weeds, pests and fungi.

Agri-food production itself has an associated climate impact, with the likes of land-use change, deforestation, and general fossil fuel intensive practices accounting for 10-12% of total global GHG emissions (Food Matters, Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century – 2008). In Brazil the world’s 5th largest GHG emitter; land-use change and deforestation associated with agriculture (in this case also non food related e.g. biofuels) is estimated to account for 70% of GHG emissions (IPCC 4th Assessment report 2009Achieving Food Security in the face of Climate Change 2011). Keeping up yields in the face of increased demand and reducing soil fertility also has a large impact – 383.6kg of chemical fertiliser is used per hectare in China, which creates problems both of GHG emissions and pollution (Achieving Food Security in the face of Climate Change 2011).

(5) Conflict surrounding Natural Resources

The agri-food system is threatened by conflict surrounding the availability of natural resources essential for food production. Water is a key example and one already subject to a long history of conflict. Farming currently accounts for around 70% of mankind’s water use. Food producers are in direct competition with industry and communities for access to scarce water resources to grow food. The UN predicts that the needs of agriculture for irrigation will increase 50-100% as demand is met by water intensive growing practices (UN Water for Food Factsheet).

The amount of land available for food production is constantly being squeezed. Urban sprawl, escalating land prices and expansion of land used for non-food agriculture such as biofuel production all makes it harder to change farm ownership, and to resist selling off land used to grow food. The global demand for biofuels is increasing with a projected growth in demand of 100% from 2008 to 2019, and 400% come 2035 (IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2011 ).  In 2008-9 around 10% of coarse grain production was for ethanol production – some 110 million tonnes of grain (FAO How to feed the World in 2050).

Meanwhile for the farms growing food across the planet, it is estimated that some 12M hectares of agricultural land is lost to land degradation each year (UNCCD Desertification, degradation and drought Factsheet).

Waste Paradox

As huge amounts of effort and research, not to mention money are invested in increase the efficiency of food production and increasing yields, paradoxically our current distribution systems and ways of using food, are extremely wasteful. Over 1/3 of total food produced (around 1.3 billion tonnes) is not eaten (Achieving Food Security in the face of Climate Change 2011). The reasons for wastage vary; in the developed world much of this wastage is at the demand-end with in the UK some 15% of food entering a household ending up in the bin (Food Matters, Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century – 2008). Post harvest losses in the USA are estimated to be around 43 billion kg annually – more than ¼ of the amount available to eat was lost post retail (Global Food Losses and Food Waste FAO 2011). In the developing world, up to 40% of food harvested is lost due to spoilage in processing, storage and transport due to inadequacies in distribution, packaging and refrigeration (BBSRC consultation relating to food security in 2009).

The costs of increasing efficiency, and therefore also of this wastage are staggering (IPCC 4th Assessment report 2009). According to FAO report How to feed the World in 2050 ; countries are estimated to have (on average) put $142Billion (public and private investments) into agriculture in the past decade.  It is estimated that a further $83 billion of investment annually (avg) is required to meet demand for the developing world. If the cost of the renewal of depreciating investments is included this figure is closer to $210 billion. Ultimately many countries depend on importing food to ensure their food security, a situation anticipated to increase – net import of cereals for example is set to more than double from 2008 – 2050.

International Response to food security threats

There is some evidence of countries responding strategically to food security threats. Internationally the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative (ASIF) has been committed in excess of $20Bn over 3 years by the G8 group of nations including 1.8Bn from the UK which is distinct from the rest of the UKs aid budget (Aquila Joint Statement on Global Food Security 2009). Though in the UK food security is mentioned in policy, we have yet to adopt food-security specific policy.

Tajikistan is one of the few countries to have adopted a food security law in 2010, putting the country onto a trajectory for 80% self-sufficiency in food supply. However only 7% of Tajikistan’s land is currently farmed for arable and around 50% of the country is higher than 3000m above sea level making this a difficult law to implement on the ground (IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2011).