Harsh realities of global food situation

Dhaka,  Wed,  20 September 2017
Published : 25 Aug 2017, 21:53:58 | Updated : 25 Aug 2017, 21:54:23
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Harsh realities of global food situation

B K Mukhopadhyay
It is now a well-known fact that humans are depleting vital groundwater resources across the globe. But a new study shows one of the biggest causes of disappearing groundwater is the international food trade. About 70 per cent of freshwater around the globe goes toward irrigation. Researchers from the University College, London and NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies found that a third of the freshwater is drawn from the world's aquifers-nonrenewable underground pockets of groundwater-and 11 per cent of that nonrenewable groundwater is used to irrigate internationally-traded crops. This means in time, the current type of food that's grown will not be able to be produced, or we'll not have the same productivity - showing and indicating that prices will increase.

As per latest assessments, global food production has been assessed to rise by 70 per cent by 2050 to cater for growth in the world's population by more than 30 per cent. Can we achieve the target? Global food security is one of the most pressing societal issues of our time. Though advances in agricultural technology and expertise will significantly increase the food production potential of many countries / regions, yet these advances will not increase production fast enough to meet the demands of the planet's even faster-growing human population.

A recent report portrays a chilling scenario: the cumulative impact of three disasters driven by climate change. The possible consequences are global food shock, resulting in food riots, ballooning prices of basic crops and significant losses in stock markets. 

The risk assessment report, produced by insurer Lloyd's of London - with support from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and vetted by academics from a number of institutions - shows how close humanity might be to a catastrophic collapse by the mid-century unless significant changes are made to curb global warming.

The scenario presented in the report examines what would happen if there were three simultaneous disasters - specifically a heat wave in South America, an explosion of windblown wheat stern rust pathogen across Russia, and a particularly strong El Niño southern oscillation cycle - all perfectly plausible phenomena given the current climate trends. The impact of these would be enough to cripple global food security.

A model, crafted by the Anglia Ruskin University's Global Sustainability Institute, in the context of the report concludes that 'in this scenario, global society essentially collapses [in 2040] as food production falls permanently short of consumption." But this forecast is based on a 'business-as-usual' approach, one in which man-made climate change leads to a combination of increased flooding and extensive drought, with agriculture facing the prospect of functioning under water-stress conditions as early as 2025. However, if carbon emissions are slashed and agriculture adapts, this scenario does not have to play out. A timely warning indeed!

What is the situation right now? Are we in the safe zone? Certainly not, and there is no question of complacency. What are the options and alternatives? Tinkering with the prevalent models can to an extent be effective, leaving the gaps uncovered.

Assistance to fight hunger has a vital humanitarian role to play in countries which require help; yet this is not a sustainable solution. One has to go deeper to explore how a food-deficit country [e.g. Ethiopia, with more than 10 million people dependent on food assistance] can address its problems by relieving food insecurity of such other countries.

It is a fact that population pressure will continue to tip the balance against proper land and water management in many developing countries. While agricultural production is critical for any form of sustainable future, focusing on the agricultural sector alone without any regard for other important factors that influence food production is not the right course of action. Population programmes require to be integrated with the overall development objectives and then be linked to other resources so that comprehensive development turns into reality.

With declining food production and resource degradation, the strategic plan has to be incorporated with population concerns [viz. population growth, distribution and rural-urban migration patterns incorporate population]. For that matter, the community development strategy, which integrates essential social services as well as production resources, is welcome.

In parallel, sustainable development strategies [encompassing soil erosion and impoverishment, deforestation, falling agricultural output, and poor water management] need to be streamlined and implemented. These need to be coupled with rural agricultural extension schemes which provide credit, seeds, fertilisers and advice to poorer farmers. Adequate support has to be provided to research on integration of traditional and emerging technologies for food production. Local knowledge ought not to be ignored.

The question of integration with external markets is important in order to encourage farmers to form cooperatives as a recognised means of accessing urban and export markets - a balance between marketable surplus and marketed surplus.

Countries need to prepare a realistic and achievable action plan to deal with the volatile behaviour of food commodity markets and the decision has to be taken as to whether biofuels (being a key driver of rising food prices) targets and incentives are to be revised in a balanced manner and whether food export restrictions that destabilise markets should be permitted only as the last resort.

It is, in a word, optimal resource management that is capable of increasing crop yields, preventing land degradation, while providing sustainable livelihoods for millions of rural poor. National population programmes, on the other hand, should include comprehensive and accessible maternal and child health care programmes and family planning services not only to reduce the size of families and improve the health and well-being of the entire community, but also to increase food production. 

There is a need to ensure protection of environment while easing burdens of the poor. The FAO has rightly noted that it is not only financial resources that are needed. Beyond the factors that exacerbate the current crisis, there is a whole series of fundamental problems that need to be resolved, in particular how aid is channeled and how to make it reach small farmers effectively, as well as reform of the world food security governance system towards greater coherence in the action of governments and development partners, the share of national budgets dedicated to agriculture and private sector investment. "It is vital, particularly in times of crisis, that support to agriculture is not reduced. Only a healthy agricultural sector, combined with a growing non-farm economy and effective safety nets and social protection programmes will be sufficient to face the global recession as well as eradicate food insecurity and poverty."

In order to avoid the disastrous consequences of widespread hunger and even starvation in the years and decades to come, a firm commitment is needed to increase crop yields of land area, the nutrients applied, and the quantity of water used. The positive impact of such efforts will considerably lessen the severity of the food shortage and lift hundreds of millions of people out of a state of hunger and malnutrition, thereby preventing widespread starvation, premature death and social unrest.

So, when about 870 million people currently suffer from hunger and chronic malnutrition, economic and financial crisis, consequences of climate change, and decrease in the quantity of usable agricultural land worldwide, the situation is bound to worsen. It is time to be realistic while planning for tomorrow.



Dr B K Mukhopadhyay is a noted management economist, an international commentator on business and economic affairs and Professor, ICFAI University faculty of management sciences, Tripura, India. m.bibhas@gmail.com



 
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