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How to Fight Food Insecurity, Even in a Changing Climate

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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harvesting food

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/ookpiks

About 800 million people worldwide do not get enough food to eat, while about 1.5 billion are overweight. As the global population expands by an additional 2 billion people by 2050 and climate change alters traditional agricultural areas, scientists and policy makers are racing to figure out how to address both problems. (Read more about how climate change might impact global food supplies in “Farmed Out.”)

This uneven food landscape is not caused solely by government regulations or farming practices, but stems from many powerful forces—forces that are expected to keep increasing. “Several converging threats—from climate change, population growth and unsustainable use of resources—are steadily intensifying pressure on humanity and world governments to transform the way food is produced, distributed and consumed,” wrote the authors of a new report, published online March 28, from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change.

Scientists and experts from more than a dozen countries collaborated to write the report.

“Food insecurity and climate change are already inhibiting human wellbeing and economic growth throughout the world, and these problems are poised to accelerate,” John Beddington, who chaired the commission, said in a prepared statement.

One of the major concerns worldwide is increasing production on ever-dwindling acres of farmable land. The world’s farms continue to put out some 2.2 percent more food each year, but that is hardly on pace to keep up with growing global demand. And, many experts argue, these expansions need to be done in a sustainable way if people are to be fed without dragging down the economy—or the environment.

It’s a tall order, but science can help. “If we do not advance the science and practice of sustainable intensification, our forests and our farming economies will be at risk,” Carlos Nobre of the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation pointed to Brazil for examples of improvement. “Brazil has made strides in reducing poverty while protecting rainforests in the last seven years,” Nobre said. The country has been using satellite technology to look for illegal logging, which will also cut down on emissions.

Progress, however, will not come without compromises. “In Australia, researchers, farmers and data managers are working together to build an integrated capacity to deal with the inevitable trade-offs,” Megan Clark, chief executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, said in a prepared statement. They are using real-time data on climate and meteorological conditions to help farmers of all kinds be better prepared for future changes.

Helping smaller farms to persist also is key to ensuring good food and local economic stability far into the future, according to the researchers. “Otherwise communities will remain vulnerable to a downward spiral of lost productivity, poverty and food insecurity,” Tekalign Mamo, state minister and advisor to the Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture, said in a prepared statement.

But the changes don’t just need to happen down on the farm. More sustainable eating—both environment- and health-wise—is also necessary. “If we don’t start to make use of the tools at our disposal to encourage eating choices that are good for people and the planet, we must resign ourselves to a growing diet-related disease burden,” Marion Guillou, president of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, said in a prepared statement. France, for example, has been including warnings on processed foods and increased the promotion of fruit and vegetable consumption.

In order to keep the world fed through climate change and population growth, major changes will be needed, the researchers concluded. “Decisive policy action is required if we are to preserve the planet’s capacity to produce adequate food in the future,” Beddington said.

But in the meantime, people can help here and now by eating more healthfully and reducing waste. Some 1.3 billion tons—about a third of all food—is lost to waste each year, the authors pointed out. “The global demand for food will increase with population growth, but the amount of food per person that needs to be produced can be brought down by eliminating waste in supply chains, ensuring more equitable access to food and moving to more resource-efficient (and healthier) vegetable-rich diets,” they wrote.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. streepie 8:27 am 03/28/2012

    I am reading this at the planet under pressure conference, where the report was released, and the issues were discussed in sessions earlier today.

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  2. 2. doridoidae 9:29 am 03/28/2012

    This is such an important article, it’s a shame that the first paragraph was included. Setting up this false contrast between people who are overweight and people who don’t get enough food distracts from the real issues in this article, and feeds into prejudicial stereotypes. In fact, in America, it’s often those who don’t get enough food who are obese, those relying on food pantries… or purchase the cheapest foods they can to fill the bellies of their families as much as possible. Often these diets, which are totally insufficient, are primarily bread, rice, and pasta, and lack sufficient proteins, fruits and vegetables.

    We need to stop thinking of grains as THE answer to global hunger, to stop feeding people the way we feed cattle, and with the same effect. Sustainable eating will benefit the people as well as the environment, if we can get a variety of quality foods to everyone, and keep it as local as possible. That might involve government support for smaller, more diverse local farms rather than single crop or specialized mega-farms.

    We need to apply the same sustainability standards to our meats as well.

    It would be a great time to re-examine some of Aldo Leopold’s work on the subject of nature and sustainable farming and hunting.

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 10:21 am 03/28/2012

    As I understand, increasing food supplies tends to increase population growth. Providing food to overpopulated regions incapable of producing adequate food supplies or something of value that can be exchanged for food simply results in increasing populations that are not self-sustaining – this is not a sustainable practice for the world’s population as a whole.

    It is another matter to temporarily provide relief for populations that suffer catastrophic failures, such as earthquakes or floods, except in cases where, for example, enormous populations living in large river deltas that soon may become continuously inundated by rising sea levels. Repeatedly providing disaster relief to the same regional populations would also not be a sustainable practice for the productive populations of the world.

    No one likes to see people suffer, but there are now so many people – too many living in permanently unsustainable conditions. There are so many people – the number suffering will most likely significantly increase in the future, especially if/when environmental conditions continue to degrade as a result of increasing and accumulating effects of human activity.

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  4. 4. priddseren 10:52 am 03/28/2012

    It is almost amazing how blind people can be. There is NOT a food shortage problem in the world. There is a food distribution problem and 100% of that issue is caused by governments around the world. Most of the government problem is really tyrannical governments run by thugs and militants who confiscate food, while the rest of the distribution problem would be more reasonable governments who establish ridiculous laws that effectively prevent farmers from selling product overseas(such as in America) or governments who block imports of food, such as most of the third world governments. In America alone less than 50% of arable land is being used and this has been true for at least 50 years. Each year ways are found to make the used 50% more productive and this fact is true in other industrialized nations. Some places like africa are using even less arable land and they are not using the efficiencies of the industialized world.

    There is simply not a shortage of food and even in the so called climate change situation, at best the arable land will shift location but humans will adapt and there will be enough food.

    The problem of distribution will remain, climate change or no climate change. It wil remain mostly because research like this article, does not even mention it at all, when distribution is in fact the primary problem. Of course thug governments will also continue to steal and pillage the food supply of their victims until something is done about that as well.

    Please spare me the claims that I am wrong, americans throw away enough food to feed most of these starving people, there is simply no way to ship the food over.

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  5. 5. Onoku 2:05 pm 03/28/2012

    @jtdwyer You are right on point. This has long been my view as well. By supporting populations that cannot support themselves, we are perpetuating the problem and allowing it to get worse.

    Would I have this opinion if the shoes was on the other foot? Of course not, but self-preservation often trumps everything else. My view may be unpopular but not unfounded.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 2:14 pm 03/28/2012

    priddseren – I do generally agree with you, but I suspect the distribution problem could be solved but for the lack of economic incentive for producing countries to provide (uncompensated) distribution.

    Moreover, as I mentioned previously, simply providing nourishment to people living in regions that cannot support sufficient food production or other goods with economic value simply results in increasing population growth.

    That being said, the global population has increased 7-fold in the past ~200 years, essentially the period in which greatly increased food production has supported significantly increasing population growth. Increased food production was enabled by many advances, but chief among them is the mechanization of labor and chemical development of largely petroleum based fertilizers and insecticides and irrigation, often using water from nonreplenished fossil aquifers.

    Most agricultural production throughout the world is now so optimized that even normal climate variations may severely disrupt productivity. North American technological societies have never had to deal with the conditions such as the 300 year Great Drought that began after about 1150, during which several great cultures collapsed, including the Anasazi and Mississippi societies. The decade of the Dust Bowl pales in comparison. While some believe that any forthcoming global climate change will simply shift agriculture north, much more complex, unpredictable effects are much more likely.

    There may currently be plenty of food available to productive populations, but that condition is subject to change. Large scale crop failures, for example, in a world with 7 billion people could produce human suffering and death on a scale never even imagined.

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  7. 7. jtdwyer 2:20 pm 03/28/2012

    Onoku – Thanks very much. In dealing with potentially catastrophic conditions, even painful, cold, hard facts must be acknowledged to develop effective management measures.

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  8. 8. marclevesque 5:47 pm 03/28/2012

    “may currently be plenty of food available to productive populations”

    Why do you think some populations are unproductive?

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  9. 9. marclevesque 5:48 pm 03/28/2012

    @ jtdwyer

    “may currently be plenty of food available to productive populations”

    Why do you think some populations are unproductive?

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  10. 10. loureiro 6:30 pm 03/28/2012

    It,s perfectly right the idea that a sustainable agriculture doesn’t come through great farms and agribusiness. In Brazil 80% of our supriments come from the family farms, and yet the government seems to ignore their existence as proportionally it deserves… It’s always a matter of corruption, transactioning great amounts of money from the contribuitors, as if being well intentioned.

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  11. 11. jtdwyer 7:20 pm 03/28/2012

    marclevesque – I’m using the terms productive/unproductive to indicate whether a population has the resources necessary to reliably produce or acquire sufficient food to sustain its population.

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  12. 12. Jerzy New 7:12 am 03/29/2012

    Flawed from the start.

    Food shortage occurs precisely where local government is weak, incompetent or unwilling to help. Therefore administrative program to fight food insecurity in Somalia is a contradiction of terms.

    Further, narrow-focus foreign food programs usually make more harm than good. For example food aid to Africa often pushed food prices down, hitting local farmers and pushing African countries deeper into poverty and instability.

    Administrative program to fight undernourishment in USA might work, but the administration seems to have more interest of big food producers than poor voters in mind.

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  13. 13. marclevesque 5:38 pm 03/29/2012

    jtdwyer – I’m wondering how you account for the present disparities between productive and unproductive populations.

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