The Food Sustainability Challenge

The Food Sustainability Challenge

The following is based on excerpts from Lucas Simons

Setting the Scene

In the next 40 years, we will reach approximately 9.5 billion people on the planet - that’s about 2 billion people more than we have now. The worrying thing is that never before, in the history of mankind, did so many people come into the world in such a short space of time.

What’s even more worrying is that in the same period of time, our global economy will likely triple. (If you take the average growth of the world economy for the last 50/60 years - 3.1% - and project that 40 years into the future, the global economy will have tripled.)

So this leads to a situation where we have more people than ever, having more money to spend than ever. And what happens when people have more money to spend - particularly those who didn’t have money before? Well, everyone wants a mobile phone, everyone wants a new home, everyone wants mobility; but definitely people will also change their diet as well.

People will want higher quality food, better levels of safety, increased variety and, unfortunately, more animal protein; which is not a very efficient source of protein for us to produce.

The result is of all these factors is that we will need to produce more food than ever - around 60-70% increase by the time we hit 9.5 billion people.

That means that in those 40 years, we’ll need to produce more food than in the last 6000-8000 years combined.

At the same time, the amount of land available per person to produce that food is declining rapidly for a number of reasons (these are just some):

  • More people (so, of course, the average goes down)
  • Climate change
  • Soil depletion
  • Bigger cities

This gives you a little appetiser of the challenge that the world faces.

The Economic Importance of Agriculture

Here are 9 African countries - chosen at random. This graph gives a very good idea about the economic importance of agriculture to these countries but we could have taken countries in Asia or Latin America to show similar results.

The grey bar shows the contribution of agriculture to employment in that country. You can see how high these levels are. All of these people are dependent on a plot of land, and producing something from that land, to gain an income.

For many countries in the world, agriculture is the most important source of employment.

Now, the green bar shows the contribution of agriculture to the gross domestic product - the economic growth of that country - and it’s largely between 20-50%. The little red bar shows the overall percentage of loans that go to agriculture.

So here’s one of the big dilemmas; we need to produce more food than ever before, it is the most important driver for many countries in the world, but still we are hardly investing in agriculture.

Is that because of a lack of money or need for investment? Certainly not. There is a market failure - a thing called ‘ABA’; we invest in Anything But Agriculture.

Agriculture is one of the most unsustainable sectors

I would argue that, by far, agriculture on a global scale is the most unsustainable sector in the world.

It is the biggest driver for deforestation; for the loss of biodiversity; it’s one of the biggest users of water (70% of fresh water in the world - misused much of the time); it’s one of the biggest users of chemicals in the world; the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world; it’s the biggest driver for poverty, malnutrition, slavery and child labour; the list goes on.

It’s truly fascinating because it doesn’t make any sense. How can something as important as food - which we cannot survive without - not lead to prosperity and all of the good things in life? Something is off.

Now, if this one was just the case in one particular crop or product, we could take action - but these outcomes are happening everywhere where we produce food on scale. Even here in The Netherlands, where I am - and we are the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world (behind USA) - we have huge problems; 45% of our pig farmers are below the poverty line; we have water and soil issues; animal disease and welfare issues. Perhaps different symptoms, but the same issues as we are seeing across the world.

So I would conclude, with all these points, that the problem is systemic; the way we have setup the system of production and trade in agriculture leads to these outcomes. Would you agree?

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