Twist on global food prob­lem

Diamond Fields Advertiser - - OPINION -

PRO­VID­ING food se­cu­rity to the nearly 10 bil­lion peo­ple who will in­habit the globe by 2050 is one of the key is­sues of the 21st cen­tury. Given that real­ity, you might think the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity would at least be able to agree on how to de­fine the prob­lem .Un­for­tu­nately, you would be wrong.

While a large part of the agri­cul­tural re­search es­tab­lish­ment is fo­cused on one as­pect of the chal­lenge – calo­ries – an­other part of the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity is fo­cused on a re­lated but dif­fer­ent one: ad­e­quate nu­tri­ent con­sump­tion.

To this point, the first group has driven the world’s agri­cul­tural re­search agenda. But a new study I co-au­thored with a group of in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tists and re­cently pub­lished in Na­ture Sus­tain­abil­ity sug­gests that calo­rie fun­da­men­tal­ism is lead­ing us down a danger­ous path. Our group looked at both the ques­tion of how much food would be avail­able dur­ing the next three decades and the ques­tion of whether the food would meet our nu­tri­tional needs.

With a depth and breadth that goes far be­yond pre­vi­ous stud­ies, we made as­sess­ments for 158 coun­tries of the sup­ply of macronu­tri­ents, such as car­bo­hy­drates, pro­tein and fat, and mi­cronu­tri­ents, such as vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, needed for good health, cog­ni­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity.

We then fore­cast the coun­try-by-coun­try needs in 2050, when the global pop­u­la­tion would have in­creased by about 2.1 bil­lion and when the economies of the coun­tries would prob­a­bly have ex­panded.

Fi­nally, to pro­vide both best- and worstcase sce­nar­ios, we pro­jected a fu­ture without cli­mate change and one with ex­treme cli­mate change. Here’s what we found:

Un­der even the worst con­di­tions, there will be enough food, if we de­fine “enough” as mean­ing suf­fi­cient calo­ries, on av­er­age, for every­one – with 2 000 calo­ries a day as the stan­dard re­quire­ment.

Of course, this doesn’t mean every­one will get enough to eat; it doesn’t mean that to­day ei­ther. Civil wars, poor roads and in­come dis­par­i­ties will prob­a­bly pro­duce hunger in 2050, as they do to­day. Help­ing th­ese peo­ple is a ques­tion of ac­cess, not avail­abil­ity.

In fact, our re­search shows there will be more calo­ries avail­able per capita in 2050 than now. This is true in all five of the in­come quin­tiles into which we cat­e­gorised the world’s peo­ple and even in the face of our ex­treme cli­mate-change sce­nario. Here’s why:

First, we found that the pos­i­tive im­pact of in­come growth be­tween now and 2050 over­whelms the neg­a­tive im­pact of cli­mate change. On av­er­age, peo­ple who need more food will be bet­ter able to af­ford it.

Sec­ond, the post-world War II Green Rev­o­lu­tion ef­forts to boost the pro­duc­tiv­ity of sta­ples such as wheat and rice have been so suc­cess­ful that we are awash in car­bo­hy­drates. And be­cause so much has been in­vested in im­prov­ing the pro­duc­tiv­ity of th­ese crops, solid yield gains will prob­a­bly con­tinue for the next few decades. The pro­duc­tiv­ity en­hance­ments have also made them more af­ford­able rel­a­tive to other foods that pro­vide more of the other needed nu­tri­ents.

Our suc­cess with car­bo­hy­drates, how­ever, has had a se­ri­ous down­side: a world­wide plague of obe­sity, di­a­betes and other diet-re­lated diseases.

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion re­ports that in 2014 there were 462 mil­lion un­der­weight adults world­wide but more than 600 mil­lion who were obese – nearly two-thirds of them in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. And child­hood obe­sity is ris­ing much faster in poorer coun­tries than in richer ones.

Mean­while, mi­cronu­tri­ent short­ages such as vi­ta­min A de­fi­ciency are caus­ing blind­ness in some­where be­tween 250 000 and 500 000 chil­dren a year and killing half of them within 12 months of them los­ing their sight. Di­etary short­ages of iron, zinc, io­dine and fo­late all have dev­as­tat­ing health ef­fects.

The sta­tis­tics point to the need for more em­pha­sis on nu­tri­ents other than car­bo­hy­drates in our di­ets. In this area, our find­ings are not re­as­sur­ing.

Mi­cronu­tri­ent de­fi­cien­cies are a prob­lem to­day even in the world’s rich­est coun­tries and are wide-spread else­where.

Our fore­casts show th­ese de­fi­cien­cies are likely to con­tinue un­der all sce­nar­ios and that cli­mate change could make them worse in some re­gions.

Our find­ings thus point to the need for a course cor­rec­tion. While we pre­pare to adapt to cli­mate change, which will prob­a­bly pro­duce ma­jor and some­what un­pre­dictable ef­fects on fu­ture food sup­ply, we must also pre­pare for the decades ahead.

We must shift our em­pha­sis from food se­cu­rity to nutri­tion se­cu­rity.

A ma­jor ef­fort must be made to in­crease the pro­duc­tiv­ity – the yield per hectare – of nu­tri­ent-rich foods such as fruits, veg­eta­bles, nuts, seeds and beans. By en­hanc­ing their pro­duc­tiv­ity, we’ll make them more avail­able and af­ford­able. And we’ll see the ben­e­fits in a di­min­ished obe­sity cri­sis and fewer vic­tims of mi­cronu­tri­ent de­fi­cien­cies.

Agri­cul­tural re­search, how­ever, gen­er­ally takes years to pay off. It’s magic, but it’s slow magic.

We need to start now.

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