Food security is the most important issue of our time

We must use innovations, technologies and awareness if we are to combat the serious challenge of food security, says Dr Ismahane Elouafi

With some 795 million people on the planet chronically undernourished, it is not surprising that the World Economic Forum (WEF) regards food security as one the most pressing global challenges. 

Delegates at this year’s Expo in Milan, a major international exhibition on the theme of ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’, discussed the progress that has been made over the past two decades: in developing regions, undernourishment fell from 23.3 per cent in 1990-92 to an estimated 12.9 per cent in 2014-15. But clearly there is much work still to be done.

An important starting point is to recognise that food security is inextricably linked to another mega-challenge of our times – water security. The WEF has cited the problem of water shortage as one of the top five global risks, alongside ageing populations and major economic crises.

'We require new strategies for global food security because the shortage of water, food and energy has the capacity to trigger civic unrest and global conflict'

Dr Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai

The competition for water between agriculture, industry and urban environments will be fierce in the future. Agriculture most probably will lose the battle, in view of priorities and of the fact that agriculture uses about 80 per cent of the world’s water. It is a sector that needs to urgently improve its water-use efficiency. 

We require new strategies for global food security because the shortage of water, food and energy has the capacity to trigger civic unrest and global conflict.

The ICBA (International Center for Biosaline Agriculture) is an international centre based in Dubai whose mission is to help smallholder farmers who face these kind of challenges. We work with national governments, NGOs, farmers and the private sector to test and customise new technologies in the areas of crop management. We focus on introducing crops with tolerance to abiotic stresses (mainly salinity), irrigation and soil management. 

The way agriculture has been expanded for centuries is costing us a lot: monoculture-oriented agriculture leads to soils  being vulnerable to erosion. Due to mismanagement, the world is losing 2,000 hectares of farm soil daily to salt-induced degradation (salt-spoiled soils worldwide represent 20 per cent of all irrigated lands, an area equal to France). The salinisation is costing us US$27bn in lost crop value per year.

However, because we seek sustainable solutions, we should note that our 17 per cent irrigated land worldwide is producing 40 per cent of our world food production, whereas 83 per cent of rain-fed land is producing 60 per cent. These numbers point the way to one of the most important solutions, which is smart agriculture based on smart irrigation systems.

hunger food security malnutrition technology innovation agriculture
There's a need for smart agriculture based on smart irrigation systems, according to Dr Ismahane Elouafi

Waste is a very important obstacle to tackle when it comes to water security. The world water consump-tion average is about 220 litres per person per day, but usage can swing from 600 litres of water in some nations to just 85 in others.Policies and education programmes have been implemented to improve people’s awareness about water scarcity and engage them in changing their water consumption behaviour,
be it at the industrial level, the household level or the agricultural level. 

Indra Nooyi, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo, patron of the Water Resources Group, and member of the Foundation Board of the WEF, recently suggested that water “sits at the nexus of so many global issues, including health, hunger and economic growth”. She explained that the only way to measurably and sustainably improve the situation is through broad-scale collaborative efforts involving governments, industry, academia and other stakeholders. 

To meet global food and other livelihood needs by 2030, agricultural systems must be devised employing innovative methods to produce far more food, more efficiently, and using up fewer resources. These systems must also  provide economic opportunities, enhance the resilience of ecosystems and the communities dependent on them and reduce environmental impacts.

The facts are stark: the world has to address its water issues if it is to make any meaningful progress on food security.


Dr Ismahane Elouafi is Director General of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai