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  • Writer's pictureTarun Shridhar

Feeding the Burgeoning Billion | Awake and Arise to the Challenge

The world ‘free of fear and want’ is how it was envisioned at the foundation of the United Nations. Today’s world remains a far cry from this dream. Similarly, we have no escape from admitting to our collective failure to realise the vision of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): to create ‘a world free of hunger and malnutrition and one in which food and agriculture contribute to improving the living standards of all, especially the poorest, in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable manner’. Against the background of this reality check, let us briefly understand the global trends which will guide and influence agriculture production and food systems in the future.

The world’s population is projected to grow to about 10 billion by the year 2050. This would, in a scenario of ordinary or modest economic growth, boost agricultural demand by some one and a half times of what it was a decade back. Income growth in low and middle income countries would lead to a dietary transition towards higher consumption of meat, fruits and vegetables, relative to that of cereals. This would obviously require commensurate shifts in efforts and output, thus adding further pressure on natural resources.

Economic growth and population dynamics are driving all round structural changes of economies.

The decline in the share of agriculture in total production and employment is taking place all across the world, although at different speeds. This poses different challenges across regions. Although agricultural investments and technological innovations are boosting productivity, growth of yields has slowed to rates that are too low for comfort. Food losses and waste claim a significant proportion of agricultural output; each year one third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, according to the FAO. Serious interventions are required to reduce this waste and losses as this would lessen the burden and need for production increases. At the same time, the needed acceleration in productivity growth is further hampered by the degradation of natural resources, the loss of biodiversity, and the spread of transboundary pests and diseases of plants and animals, some of which are becoming resistant to antimicrobials. Climate change poses multiple and complex challenges which are further compounded by its disproportionately adverse effects upon the food-insecure regions, jeopardizing crop and livestock production on the one hand, and fish stocks and fisheries on the other. Experts believe that satisfying increased demands on agriculture with existing farming practices is likely to lead to more intense competition for natural resources, and the resultant increased greenhouse gas emissions, and further deforestation and land degradation.

No doubt hunger and extreme poverty have been on a reduction trajectory globally since the 1990s, yet around 700 million people, most of them living in rural areas, are still suffering from abject poverty today. In addition, despite undeniable progress in reducing rates of undernourishment and improving levels of nutrition and health, almost 800 million people are chronically hungry and a staggering 2 billion suffer micronutrient deficiencies. Besides being a matter for serious concern, it should also call for an informed and empathetic introspection into the entire regime of international governance. In a ‘business-as-usual’ approach and scenario, without additional and innovative efforts to promote pro-poor development, more than 650 million people would still be undernourished in 2030. Even where poverty has been reduced, pervasive inequalities remain, hindering poverty eradication as also creation of a just and equitable society.

Critical parts of food systems are becoming more capital-intensive, vertically integrated and above all concentrated in fewer hands, right from input provisioning to food distribution. Poultry in India is a good illustration of both concentration and integration; and the integration is both of the backyard and small producer, as also the entire production and supply chain. However, in several other sub-sectors of agriculture and food production, small- scale producers and landless households are at a severe disadvantage and generally the first to lose out, pushing them to increasingly seek employment opportunities outside of agriculture. This is resulting in increased migratory flows, especially of male members of rural households, which is leading, in turn, to the ‘feminization’ of agriculture and animal husbandry in many parts of the world. In several parts of our country, farming and livestock production economies are being fully managed by the women, while in quite a few other regions women are shouldering the greater part of the burden, if not the whole, in a large number of activities, especially livestock related. Sadly, this has not taken societies towards women empowerment, in fact quite the contrary.

Conflicts, crises of all kinds, political, economic, social, and natural disasters are increasing both in number and intensity. And how do they impact us? In multiple ways to say the least. They not only reduce availability of food but, where available, also disrupt access to food and health care. They undermine social security and protection systems, pushing many affected people back into poverty and hunger, fuelling distress migration and increasing the need for humanitarian aid. Violent conflicts also frequently characterize protracted crises, lending a permanence to the human distress of food and nutrition. On an average, the proportion of undernourished people living in low-income countries with a protracted and dragged out crisis is between 2.5 and 3 times higher than in other low-income countries; an alarming figure indisputably. And then, instead of sustainable development and growth, it is the sustained destitution that stares in our face.

Amid the great plenty, billions of people still face pervasive poverty, gross inequalities, unemployment or underemployment, environmental degradation, disease and deprivation. Displacement and migratory flows are at their highest levels since the Second World War. Many armed conflicts have been resolved, but new ones, and perhaps more dangerous, have emerged. Much of humanity’s progress has come at a considerable cost to the environment. The impacts of climate change are already being felt, and if left unabated are likely to intensify considerably in the years ahead. Globally integrated production processes have brought many benefits, but also with the costs and challenges in terms of their regulation, specifically in the context of the requirement to steer them towards more equitable, inclusive and sustainable outcomes.

Population dynamics will radically change demographics over the coming decades and towards the end of the century. One may extol the virtues of demographic dividend but one should also not stop worrying about the fact that the projected growth in the world’s population is expected to be concentrated in Africa and South Asia. Further, by the mid-century two-thirds of the global population will live in urban areas. The population will continue to grow in South Asia until mid-century, and in sub-Saharan Africa until at least the end of the century. By the year 2100, Asia and Africa are expected to be home to a combined population of 9 billion, out of the projected 11 billion people who will inhabit the earth, a staggering 82%; and within Asia, it is the South Asian region that would be the dubious leader.

Can we sustainably feed a world population of 11 billion? And how? At the core is the question whether today’s agriculture and food systems are capable of meeting the needs of a global population that is projected to reach upto 10 billion by mid-century and peak at more than 11 billion by the end of the of it. Can we achieve the required production increases, even as the pressures on already scarce land and water resources and the negative impacts of climate change intensify? The consensus view of the experts is that the current systems are fully capable of producing enough food, but to do so in an inclusive and sustainable manner will require major transformations. This raises further questions.

Can agriculture meet the unprecedented demand for food in ways that ensure that the use of the natural resource base is sustainable, while containing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the impacts of climate change? Can the world secure access to adequate food for all, especially in the low-income regions where population growth is the most accelerated? Can agricultural sectors and rural economies be transformed in ways that provide more and better employment and income- earning opportunities, especially for youth and women, and help stem mass migration to cities with limited labour-absorption capacity?

Can public policies address the burden of malnutrition by promoting food systems that give affordable access to food for all, eliminate micronutrient deficiencies and redress the overconsumption of food? Can the huge problem of food losses and waste, estimated at as much as one-third of the total food produced for human consumption, be tackled? Can national and global regulatory structures protect producers and consumers against the increasing monopoly power of large, multinational, vertically integrated agro-industrial enterprises? Can the impacts of conflicts and natural disasters, both major disruptors of food security and the causes of vast migrations of people, be contained and prevented?

We should surely attempt an answer to these critical and daunting questions.

(This article is based upon the FAO Publication titled The Future of Food and Agriculture)


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