FOOD SECURITY SPECIAL SECTION
“The real problem is that some will suffer from hunger and malnutrition while others will suffer from obesity”
The real problem for global food security is not a shortage of food. There is enough to go around, and this is likely to continue even after the world’s population exceeds 9bn. The real problem is economic access to food at a local and regional level. It is a matter of distribution and income, not agricultural production as such. This is because food is not always produced in the regions where hungry people live, and even when it is, prices are often so high that poor people cannot afford it. So the real problem for policymakers is that some people in future will be suffering from hunger and malnutrition while others will be suffering from obesity and related diseases.
The fact that hunger can exist amid plenty was amply illustrated by the tight commodity markets of 2007 and 2011 and the consequent food price spikes, which were exacerbated by policy responses. These spikes had direct, negative consequences on developing countries that depend on food imports as well as hitting the poorest households hardest. With the UN projecting the world’s population to exceed 9bn by 2050, and the fastest rate of growth expected in countries already suffering from high levels of under-nourishment, the real question is whether the international community can rise to the challenge of improving access to food for the poorest consumers, while also enabling agricultural producers in the developing markets to participate in the solution.
According to the latest FAO projections, agricultural production and demand will increase by 60% by 2050. World income is also expected to rise, but poverty will persist, resulting in low per capita food consumption and poor nutrition in some pockets of the population. In developed countries, over-consumption and food waste is likely to increase still further. For global policymakers the priorities will be to improve regional food security and nutrition, and also to support sustainable production methods.
While the agricultural sector is capable of meeting expected future demand, the historic solution of improving yields will become harder to achieve using sustainable techniques. Climate change is another variable, of course, together with the potentially disruptive trend of farmers diverting land to energy crops. Increasing the amount of land under arable production is also beset with problems. Much of the world’s “spare” land would require significant investment to bring into production, and this would be done at the expense of pasture and other uses. The available land is also concentrated in a few countries, including Brazil, China and Mozambique. Where local resource constraints are coupled with fast population growth and inadequate income opportunities, land scarcity could lead to more poverty and food insecurity.
At a time when global food shortages are not a threat, discussions about them detract from legitimate concerns about economic access to food. It is paramount therefore that policymakers remain focused on the real issues, such as high and volatile food prices, and the need to secure adequate supplies for the expanding and increasingly urbanised populations in food-insecure countries. The transfer of technology and the application of best agricultural practices are certainly part of the solution, along with non-distorting trade policies and fair access to agricultural commodity trade.
Kostas G. Stamoulis is the Director, Agricultural Development Economics Division, Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)