But what does food sustainability mean really? I recently had the chance to learn about this in a course entitled "Sustainability of Global Food Systems: A Life Cycle Perspective." where we examined how the choices of what we eat affects the environment, what factors have affected the global supply and demand of food, and how can we feed the ever growing global population.
Coincidentally, I began this course in the first week of Ramadan, which led to additional reflection and appreciation for the importance of food in our daily lives. Especially when we were studying hunger and food waste, two very closely related issues.
Food Supply and Demand
To begin to understand how the global food system works, one must first understand the Food Supply Chain, beginning from where a certain food item is produced, to the supply and demand of these food items which are affected by various factors.
Demand for food has increased in the past few decades due to the below factors:
- Increase in the population from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7 billion in 2011. Every year, 80 million people are added to the population. If the trend remains, by 2050 we are expected to reach 9 to 10 billion people.
- The rise of affluence of many developing countries leading to the increase of consumption; as income increases for many of the developing countries, their levels of consumption increase.
Traditionally, those would be the only two reasons driving up supply, however recently the introduction of bio fuels and the use of grain for their creation have added demand for grain supply globally. In the US alone, 32% (or 127 million tons) of the grain production goes to bio-fuel production. If the same grain was shifted from bio-fuel production to food, it would be able to feed 4 billion people according to some estimates.
Supply however is limited due to extreme soil erosion, increasing water shortages, and the earth’s rising temperature, all of which creates a considerable challenge for countries that export food. For them to manage food supplies and avoid the increase of prices locally, they tend to restrict the export of food items to the countries that rely on them to feed their people, creating further barriers for the low income importing countries that, with any additional increase in prices, might not be able to import any food at all.
This trend has led some of the more affluent countries to buy or lease land long term in other countries to grow food for themselves. Saudi Arabia, South Korea and China were the first countries to do so, however land acquisitions have since grown in number. Most of which are in Africa, namely, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan, countries where millions are being sustained by donations from the United Nation’s World Food Program. Ironic, isn’t it?
One matter closely tied to access to food and global supply and demand is hunger, since supply and demand greatly affect access and affordability of food items.
Up until 1997, the number of hungry people in the world was dropping, reaching 792 million. However since then, it has continued to rise, climbing towards 1 billion. Almost all of the hungry people in the world live in Sub Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent, with approximately 16 million hungry people in the developed world.
Of course when reading these numbers, it’s hard to keep in mind how it affects one single individual, to live a hungry life. An article written by Adam Nossiter in the New York Times examines the effects of rising food prices in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He mentions heart wrenching story after story of families who have both parents working but yet have to ration their food to last a week, with 2 to 3 food-less days; days when the parents don't eat, and the children do, or vice versa to cope with the increasing food prices, while as recently as three years ago they could afford to all have at least one meal per day. This same story is being repeated the world over, and I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what that must be like on a personal level, especially being a parent and having to send their children to school hungry.
The effects of malnourishment on almost 1 billion people cannot go unnoticed. And when hunger is concerned, it is usually the children who suffer the most. As a result of malnourishment, some children are too weak to walk to school, with their physical growth and mental development being stunted.
One piece of information that I found shocking was that out of all the children in India, 48% of them suffer from chronic hunger, and as a result they are stunted physically and mentally. They are underweight, undersized, and are likely to have an IQ that is 10-15 points less than that of well-nourished children. In other words, 250 million children will never reach their full potential, and will suffer throughout their lifetimes as a result of hunger.
Food Loss & Waste
Reading the above information gives a picture of not enough food being produced, and one might think that producing more quantities of food would solve this issue. However it is never as simple as that. In fact it is far from the truth, since as cited in a Huffington Post article, we are already producing enough food to feed 10 billion people, but hunger is not even close to ending.
Production per commodity group, per region (million tons)
When I read that one third of the food produced (1.3 billion tons) is lost or wasted globally each year I started to make a conscious effort while preparing food in Ramadan to not prepare extra amounts, and not waste left overs. I would like to think that it made a small difference in reducing our household's food waste, however I want to see this awareness spread to households across the region, to reduce our food waste in Ramadan and year round.
However when considering the global picture of food wasted or lost annually, we must understand that it is due to a mix consumer behavior and existing inefficiencies in the current Food Supply Chain, which means that with improvements in the supply chain and changes in consumer behavior we could potentially be able to provide more quantities of food to the end consumer, at cheaper prices.
When discussing the topic of food waste and loss, it is important to note the difference between the two terms, as they occur at different stages of the supply chain. Food loss occurs during the production, harvesting, storage and processing sections of the supply chain, while food waste occurs at the consumers’ end of the supply chain when food is discarded.
The obvious reasons behind minimal food waste in Sub Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia and other developing regions is the fact that poverty and limited income make it unacceptable to waste food; they simply can't afford it! However much of the food wasted is during production and processing, due to lack of technological advancements, proper infrastructure and coordination between various entities in the market. In contrast, the attitude of consumers in industrialized countries and abundance make it more acceptable and expected for food to be wasted, since people can afford to waste it.
It’s also worth noting that food waste at consumer levels in industrialized countries (222 million tons) is almost as high as total net food production in Sub Saharan Africa (230 million tons). In other words, the developed world throw away almost as much food as the developing world produces!
One last point to consider when discussing food waste and loss is the caloric content of the food being wasted or lost. Traditionally, food waste and loss is calculated in kg/year per capita units, however a working paper published recently by the World Resource Institute, presented a different approach to calculating food loss and waste by calculating the amount of calories lost by food item.
In terms of quantities, the biggest food item wasted globally is Fruit and Vegetables, with approximately 44% wasted (mostly due to harvesting techniques and high appearance standards) however in terms of calories, the food item being wasted the most is Cereals with approximately 53% wasted.
We currently are not in a very pleasant situation, with 1 of every 7 people in the planet being chronically hungry, the environment not being able to withstand increasing agriculture, and the population being predicted to reach an average of 9 billion people by 2050. These three challenges require a holistic approach that would solve the hunger problem today and be able to meet the growing demand for food in the next few decades while not harming the environment.
A 5 step plan proposed by Jonathon Foley, if implemented properly would secure just that.
- Reducing the effect of agriculture on the environment by slowing down the transfer of tropical and savannah land into agricultural land.
- Increasing production from lands that are producing below their optimum amounts, in other words increasing the yields of the lowest producing farms by improved irrigation systems, better seeds and more affective fertilizer application could lead to improving production of many farms in Africa, Central America and Eastern Europe.
- Using resources more efficiently; producing more crop output using less water, fertilizer and energy. This can be done with drip irrigation, a technique called mulching (covering soil with organic matter to retain moisture), and effective use of fertilizer.
- Consuming less amounts of meat. The amount of grain used to fatten animals could easily be used to feed populations directly. Of course meat is too engrained in our cultures to be able to stop eating it, however small shifts from grain fed beef to pasture fed beef, or to chicken could make a big difference.
- Reducing the amount of waste, which is quite an obvious step, but not always implemented. This can happen by the methods mentioned above of improving the efficiency of the food supply chain and consumer behavior.
If in fact all these 5 steps were implemented through an integrated plan that addresses all aspects equally, it could increase the amount of food available globally by 100% - 180%, while reducing biodiversity losses, green house gas, water use and pollution.
Regardless of how the steps are eventually executed, one thing is clear; unless we implement a fully integrated plan to secure food for the current hungry population, grow enough food to meed the demands of the future population, and doing so while taking care of the environment, we will be faced with a very dark future indeed.
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About the author:
Managing Director & Co Founder
CSR Watch Jordan
Connect with the author:
- World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics, World Hunger Education Service, 2013
- The state of children in India, UNICEF, 2011
- Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, Lester Brown, 2012
- Global Food and Food Waste, FAO, 2011
- Reducing Food Loss and Waste, World Resource Institute, 2013
- Can we feed the world & sustain the planet, Jonathon Foley, 2011