World hunger: food for thought

As the planet faces impending food shortages, Vision examines how the world needs to invest in food production to ensure the global population has enough to eat

Traditionally, food was something that sustained us, and was hunted and gathered from the resources around us. Fast forward 10,000 years and the world is much more populous, while its inhabitants have more refined tastes. Our planet is also facing a reduced food supply as global warming wreaks havoc on crop yields.

Limited supply has had a disastrous effect on prices. According to The World Bank, 44 million people have fallen into extreme poverty and hunger in developing countries as a result of food price increases since June 2010.

“If the price of staple foods such as rice increase, it means people who are dependent on rice as their staple have less money to purchase other foods and, also, less money to invest in healthcare and education,” says Sophie Clayton, Public Relations Manager at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). “Keeping food staples like rice affordable for the poorest consumers in the world is fundamental to reducing global poverty.”

Solutions

Food security is an increasingly debated topic with think tanks and experts alike hashing out the issues in order to find possible solutions that could ease the strain for future generations.

Oil rich countries across the Middle East have come up with their own solution. The arid climate across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) means the countries are reliant on world food markets. The region imports nearly 90 per cent of its food, while the UAE imports about 80 per cent of its food at a cost of around US$3bn a year.

An increasing lack of water means that domestic agricultural production has had to be downsized and there is an ongoing shift from water-intensive production of cereals and green fodder, to crops like fruits and vegetables. Water-saving technology such as greenhouses, drip irrigation and hydroponics are also being used.

In the UAE there has been a big push to develop solar power infrastructure. Each square kilometre of land in the MENA region receives solar energy that is equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of crude oil a year.

In Abu Dhabi, the Environment Agency is pushing forward with solar-powered systems and is in the process of installing 30 small-scale solar-powered desalination plants, which will provide animals with watering holes in Abu Dhabi’s deserts.

In order to bring even greater food security, the UAE and other GCC countries are also following in the steps of China and investing in agricultural land abroad.

“The important thing about land acquisition is that countries in the Gulf will rely less on the open market,” says Taysir Al-Ghanem, Regional Communication Manager for the Near East and North Africa communications division, IFAD.

These agro-investments, which have increased since 2008, have been mostly in nearby food-insecure countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Pakistan. Other targeted countries also include the Philippines, Egypt and Turkey.

As crop yield continues to lag behind demand, science has found a solution in the form of genetically modified foods. GM crops have so far been embraced in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and Canada. These new super foods, which have been engineered to grow faster, resist pathogens and produce extra nutrients, have so far been mostly used in transgenic plant products such as soybean, corn, canola and cotton seed oil.

As the world population grows and more land is utilised for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places.

Technology is also being used to create synthetic meat. In California, Professor Patrick Brown, a molecular biologist at Stanford University, is developing a way to turn plant tissue into fake meat, which is indistinguishable from the real thing but much cheaper, while in the Netherlands, scientists are researching ways of producing real meat in a factory.

Alternative forms of food

Across South-East Asia, insects are being used as an alternative form of protein. Crickets, cockroaches and other bugs and grubs, are harvested commercially and provide vital income for struggling farmers. In Jordan and Kenya, a nutritious blue-green algae, spirulina, is being added to school meals to combat chronic malnutrition and anaemia.

In the US, a small number of farmers have been trying to cultivate Edamame – a type of soybean mostly grown in Asia – as a protein-rich alternative to meat. 

As economies across emerging markets in Asia and the Middle East see a steady increase in disposable income, consumers are shifting to more meat-based diets, which has led to greater demand for food and feed grains in the region.

Feeding livestock is much less resource-efficient than growing grains for human consumption. The production of 1kg of beef uses 12 times the amount of water needed to produce 1kg of wheat, and more than five times the amount of land. Crops grown to feed people directly currently take up just 4 per cent of the Earth’s available land surface; but crops to feed cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens account for 30 per cent – seven times as much.

While we continue on our collision course to a food crisis, there are moves being made to combat both the economic and social issues behind this predicament. They encompass not only social initiatives, but technological ones as well.