With the world’s population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, projections are that we will need to expand global food production by 70% to keep our world fed. But this could be a practically impossible task given our parallel resource scarcity.
And it’s the food, water and energy nexus that’s keeping observers of this trend awake at night. Naturally, adequate water supply is essential for food production, which now accounts for 80 percent of global freshwater withdrawals annually. Yet, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), half of all grain production is at risk of insufficient water resources by 2050.
And, of course, there is the intertwining of food and oil prices as a result of increased energy use in agriculture and the growing share of food crops used to produce biofuels. Higher energy prices in recent years have meant higher food prices, while more land and water have been employed to produce energy. At the same time, access to adequate food and water has declined, with climate change exacerbating the problems.
“Business as usual is not working …. what we need is business unusual.”
Dr. Shenggen Fan, Director General of the IFPRI
Dr. Shenggen Fan, director general of the IFPRI, addressed some of these significant challenges while in Hong Kong late last month. “Business as usual is not working”, he said, “what we need is business unusual.”
Fan featured at the Economist Conference, Feeding the World: Asia’s prospect of plenty, and at the Climate Change Business Forum’s 2 Degrees Plus Food seminar. The latter event followed on from 2 Degrees Plus Water, held earlier this year and moderated by China Water Risk’s Debra Tan.
Fan emphasized that with drought in the U.S. and a diminished corn crop this year, we already face possible global food shortages. Drought in Russia, China, North Korea and South Korea are similarly withering key cops and exacerbating shortages. Climate change and the consequent changing weather patterns are now the “new normal” and something to which we all must adapt, he said.
Agriculture, Fan said, is both the problem and the solution to our myriad climate change challenges. Already, natural disasters cost us over $300 billion last year and Asia is among the regions worst impacted by unpredictable weather.
Yet he emphasized the significance of the agricultural sector. Beyond the hefty water withdrawals, agriculture uses 34 percent of land and 35 percent of labor. In all, 97 percent of agricultural workers live in developing countries and of those, 41 percent are women. In Asia, 90 percent of farmers are working farms smaller than 2 hectares.
Biofuels – at least crop biofuels – took the heat in 2 Degrees + Food. In his talk, Fan argued that to avert the immediate crisis, the U.S. government should immediately suspend its biofuels program. Under the Renewable Fuels Standard, 9 percent of US gasoline must now be ethanol. This effectively means converting almost 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop into energy.
Growing biofuels, Fan says, already has pushed the global price of food significantly higher to the detriment of some of the world’s poorest, suffering already from food shortages and malnutrition. This brings me to the four principal takeaways from Fan’s speech and the panel discussion that followed.
- We live in a world replete with poverty, where economic growth doesn’t necessarily correlate to less hunger. This is true even in Asia, where the economy is booming. In all, he said, 15 Asian countries have alarming levels of hunger, similar to those of Africa. The cost of micronutrient deficiencies in India alone is $17.3 billion, or 2.5 percent of GDP. Meanwhile, Fan quoted World Food Program statistics that show malnutrition costs China 5 percent of its GDP annually.
- Dietary changes in Asia, rising incomes and urbanization are adding to food stress, with meat consumption increasing 5-6 percent. Regional economies are even more vulnerable to water stress and climate change, to rising sea levels, and loss in agricultural productivity. This will only be made worse by drought, which this year alone is expected to cut wheat production by 28.8 percent, maize, by 37.3 percent.
- Crop-based biofuels are adding to food security and climate concerns. These compete with food availability and push up prices. They also increase carbon emissions in land use change, the conversion of rainforest and grasslands into energy crops. U.S. ethanol distilleries consumed 120 million tons of corn last year alone – an amount that could have fed the world, Fan said. That corresponds to about 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop. In all, 8 percent of corn globally feeds our bio-ethanol habit.
- Agriculture contributes to climate change but can also help mitigate it, employing crop management and grazing land management, investments, innovations and incentives. We need to invest $7 billion annually to promote low-carbon agriculture. This would include choosing crop varieties that are drought tolerant, improving rotations as well as appropriate use of fertilizers.
Other panelists presented a similarly gloomy portrait of our need to produce ever more food amid dwindling resource inputs. We have one planet but will essentially need three by 2050 if we are to produce and consume at the same levels and in the same way. We need to learn to produce more with less. We need radically new measurement tools and technology to achieve this. As consumers, we must all buy into change.
Climate change is still not on the corporate risk registers as a threat to food supply, panelists said. But clearly, hand-in-hand with water scarcity, it should be.