Both before and after Bob Geldof committed to letting everyone know it’s Christmas time, intense debate has raged over the best way to feed the world. In a globalised era, we are all aware of the threat that many communities still face from famine and hunger. With an ever-expanding population and increasing pressure on agricultural industry, there are very real concerns over whether we can cope with greater demand for food. By 2050, the global population is estimated to reach nine billion. Considering the intense environmental pressure that we are already subjecting the planet to, the solution to feeding a further two billion people is not a straightforward one. Tackling the problem will prove to be one of the defining challenges of the next few decades.
Agriculture is currently one of the largest contributors to global warming. Farming emits more greenhouse gases than all forms of transport combined, uses more water than any other industry and is the leading cause of habitat destruction around the world. It’s small wonder that calls for expansion in the sector are being met with scepticism in many circles. However, on top of the fast-approaching prospect of two billion extra mouths, an increased demand for more meat and feed for livestock in developing countries means that something has to give. Both environmental and economic realities mean that we cannot continue as we are.
As seems to be the case whenever there is a potentially catastrophic issue affecting the planet, people are finding it difficult to agree on the best course of action. The largest schools of thought centre on technological, ethical and political solutions. In an age where so much is possible thanks to the might of mechanisation, it seems logical that an application of greater scientific resource to the food problem would make a massive difference. Over the last century, we’ve already seen how agricultural industrialisation has dramatically increased crop yields, while the use of pesticides and GMOs has helped our food supplies to become more resilient and more easily controllable. The proven benefits of technology suggest that a similar approach to the growing crisis may well provide at least part of the solution.
On the other side of the debate are those who believe that a tech expansion misses the point of the situation entirely. There are many who propose that the most effective way to increase yields is not to rely on already industrialised industries, but focus our energy on empowering small, local and organic farms in the world’s poorest areas. Not only would this increase food production in areas that need it most, such as sub-Saharan Africa, but farmers would have the ability to lift themselves out of poverty whilst providing for local communities. Again, the argument that these advocates make is a compelling one.
Another persuasive case is made by those who believe that the situation has nothing to do with food supply whatsoever. This group highlights the fact that, in reality, we have plenty of food currently available to feed people around the world and that, historically, supply has always been able to keep up with demand. The problem is political and global poverty is the key issue. The fact that famine almost exclusively affects developing economies around the world highlights the role that poverty plays in food shortages. Were we to focus on the disease of global poverty, rather than tackling the symptom that is hunger, we could ultimately alleviate concerns over population growth. While this argument ignores many of the wider environmental considerations, it nonetheless raises an interesting point about our attitude to the incoming crisis.
Despite the doom, gloom and growing schism between those of differing opinion, all is not lost. Beyond the solutions advocated by the three main opposing camps, there are several ways that the whole agricultural industry can tackle the issue. The first is to all be more efficient with the land that we already have. With nearly 40 per cent of the earth’s landmass already dedicated to farming, we cannot afford to take up any more. Therefore, employing a combination of tech-based farming systems alongside organic strategies in both industrialised and developing economies will help ensure that the land we’ve already dedicated to agriculture is as efficient as possible.
The second, unfortunately for indulgent foodies everywhere, is to be more thoughtful about our diets. Due to global demand for meat, only about 55 per cent of the food that we produce goes to feeding people. The rest is used in the meat and dairy industries. If we all ate fewer animal products, more of our arable produce could go to the hungry across the earth. Similarly, changing our global attitude to food waste has the potential to have a huge impact. With over 1.3 billion tonnes of food thrown away each year, even a slight reduction could make a massive difference.
The key to overcoming our imminent crisis is finding a solution that’s in the best interests of the global community. Each of the main three camps offer solutions at the expense of other interested parties. By taking elements from each argument, it is certainly possible to envision a situation where the feeding of the nine billion is significantly more straightforward than catering for our current population. However, the time to act is now. If we fail to cooperate, the consequences for both humanity and the planet could be dire.