About the author: Maximo Torero is the chief economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
The number of hungry people in the world has increased the last six years in a row. It increased by 10 million in 2019, and nearly 60 million in the 5 years before that. New figures estimate that up to 811 million people around the world faced hunger in 2020, as many as 161 million people more than in 2019. It is evident that our agricultural and food systems are failing us.
If we continue as we are today around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030, despite the global pledge to end hunger by that year, in part due to the lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on global food security.
The pandemic and the measures to contain it continue to deliver a severe blow. Lockdowns triggered a steep recession. The pandemic has also affected the logistics of food-value chains, both local and global. For informal workers, many of whom are in the agricultural sector, whose work is not registered, not taxed, and therefore not protected, the sudden loss of income exacerbated their vulnerabilities. For example, in South America, where on average more than half of the economy is informal, the lockdowns have cut off sources of income overnight for informal workers. Without access to healthcare or financial services, income losses quickly led to poverty and even death.
At the same time, current consumption patterns and the agri-food systems that support them are also leading to significant environmental impacts. They are a contributor to high food waste and loss, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, and are a growing source of inequality. Our food systems are generating severe human, economic and environmental costs that run into the trillions of dollars.
To get to where we need to by 2030, we must understand the challenges facing us through an agri-food systems lens and act holistically. This requires that we recognize the interconnected and compounding economic, social, and environmental impacts of our agri-food systems. The pay-offs can be great.
For example, the greening of food systems offers opportunities for ending world hunger and tackling climate change. There is an array of solutions that can reduce carbon footprints, ensure environmental sustainability and at the same time tackle hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition by ensuring affordable healthy diets for all. These solutions can be designed to be an engine of economic recovery, creating viable jobs and sustainable livelihoods, while re-addressing inequality.
We also need to manage trade-offs. For example, some low and lower-middle income countries may need to increase their carbon footprints in order to meet the dietary needs of their populations particularly to prevent malnutrition.
It’s critical we get started soon, and at scale.
Our food systems are contributing to global greenhouse emissions. Agriculture uses about 40% of the earth’s land but along with energy and transportation, it contributes significantly to the global greenhouse gas emissions. The issues aren’t only with livestock and fisheries, but also the way we produce crops, using fertilizers. Food systems are accelerating the rate of climate breakdown.
A piecemeal approach has proved unable to address the interconnected nature of these challenges.
Our agri-food systems can become a positive force that protects our planet and our health, and that ensures food security and nutrition to all.
For example, we need to learn from a story of transformation through aquaculture. Capture fisheries reached a maximum global production in the mid 1990s, and have remained remarkably constant since, despite much regional variations. Meanwhile, an old production industry, aquaculture, started to grow and now matches capture fisheries in volume.
In a recent analysis FAO has projected three future scenarios for both sectors: a high road, a low road, and a business-as-usual scenario. The difference between the high road and the low roads is a total of 110 Mt of fisheries through aquaculture. The path to the high road runs through what we call “blue transformation”: the sustainable intensification of aquaculture where food is needed most, and transformative fisheries management where sustainability is under threat. The potential of blue transformation to fill the demand gap by the middle of the century is unparalleled.
Fish is the most efficient converter of food to flesh. Because fish do not regulate their temperature and live in water, they require less skeleton investment. Fish outpaces chicken, pork, and certainly beef in their efficiency. With one kilogram of feed you get one kilogram of fish, but the same feed will only get you 150 grams of beef or 280 grams of pork.
There are opportunities to further integrate agriculture, coastal fisheries, aquaculture and water management through circular, ecosystem-based approaches to support blue-green economies. Innovations in land and sea production include must include local communities, and technology implementation has to be place-based and co-developed with communities and users.
Similarly, countries are also failing to invest in rural broadband, even though it’s a glaring example of cost-effective investment that can reduce inequality and poverty. E-commerce thrived during the pandemic, but none of the benefits trickled down to rural areas due to poor infrastructure. E-commerce requires platforms, mobile money or mobile banking, and transportation systems to move commodities. Governments can assume the initial fixed cost to make this happen and then let the private sector take over to expand access.
About 80% of the world’s poorest people struggle to eke out a living in rural areas. For them, agriculture has always been the main livelihood. It remains the main engine of growth for many developing nations. It is perhaps the most important weapon in the battle against poverty and hunger right now. So it’s shocking that international development and finance organizations have left it entirely out of the post-Covid recovery discourse. An equitable and sustainable recovery is not possible unless these rural populations are integrated into the recovery plan.
What matters is identifying and acting on what actually makes a difference for those going to sleep on empty stomach tonight. Repeating hopeful catchphrases is not one of them.
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