Making sure the world has enough to eat means we have to face both moral and technical issues. If someone was starving outside your front door, it would be difficult to enjoy a three course meal inside. But since the starving and under fed millions are out of sight, we are able to put them out of mind. Whether we should continue to eat what we can afford whilst other don’t eat at all – is the moral question.
The technical question is whether innovation and science can continue to increase the productivity of agriculture to provide more food for millions of more mouths from the same land resources.
Global food security is one of the world’s most pressing issues. We’ve already seen soaring food prices and some shortages. When it comes to feeding the planet our agriculture needs a major rethink and some fundamental changes.
There are already over seven billion mouths to feed on the planet. By 2050 this is expected to rise to over nine billion.
I’ve travelled to New York to meet Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute and Special Advisor on Hunger to United Nations. He was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” twice, in 2004 and 2005. I’ve come to meet him to discuss whether technology and innovation can help the growing challenge of feeding the planet.
Sachs believes that at least part of the solution lies in “Smarter farming, meaning using a lot of information for much more accurate local farming.” Micro dosing is key he says, so that you’re putting the amount of nutrients into the soil in the right place at the right time. But that requires a lot more local soil testing, for mass spectroscopy to measure the functional properties of the soil.
The scale of the technological challenge is very large indeed, African agricultural productivity, according to Sachs, has been at roughly 1 tonne of grain per hectare, compared to 3 or 4 tonnes per hectare in other parts of the developing world for 50 years.
But it’s not just agricultural technologies which we have to worry about. Much of our problem, Sachs argues, is due to our obsession with meat. As middle income countries become more affluent, they add meat to the diet. Meat puts double strain on because feeding animals with feed grains to eat the meat adds an extra burden. For beef it takes 10-15 kg of feed grain for 1 kg of beef, so you can see that if the beef portion of the diet rises, that puts an incredible multiplier effect and demand for basic grains.
Sachs talks calmly and academically about the challenges facing us. But listening to him, means listening to a catalogue of potential disasters. As well as the problem of diverting land away from food production to create biofuels, he also warns that “ Carbon dioxide not only warms the planet but it acidifies the oceans threatening all the marine life, and the shell fish that people enjoy and eat for protein.”
Another problem is the fresh water crisis. We’ve been pumping water just like we pump oil and gas and a lot of the ground water is even fossil water in the same way that we have fossil oil and fossil gas, meaning that that water may be ten or twenty thousand years old. Sachs claims that it’s not been recharged by the rains, and we are therefore depleting those ground reservoirs.
Whether or not people believe Sach’s warning, we don’t need to use a crystal ball to understand what hunger and food instability means. We see it in Mali, we see it in Yemen, we see it in Somalia, we see it in poor food insecure countries that are in the drylands right now, meaning that they get little rainfall normally, but they’re very vulnerable to drought and that creates environmental refugees.
Sach’s argument is that when people move, they often move onto someone else’s land, that’s when the shooting starts and you get conflict. Sachs claims that under many conflicts right now, the underlying problem is hunger, and unless we recognise that, there is no chance of avoiding war.
For all the talks of crisis, Sachs claims to be basically optimistic. He believes we can avoid the climate change worst outcomes, we can avoid the food insecurity worst outcomes. We’re living in an age of marvellous technological breakthroughs. The information revolution is deep, and we haven’t begun to tap its real potential. So there are huge advances that can be made but they won’t happen on their own.
In other words, we have the technology, all we need is the will to use it.