This is How We Feed 7.4 Billion People Every Day
This piece was originally written for our friends at Dirt—a home for sharing stories and meals. Check out their site for more on sustainability, one mouthful at a time.
“Food security” sounds like making sure nobody takes the last piece of pie. That certainly is one form of security, and this writer will be heavily guarding her plate. But according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO), food security is actually having “physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food” that fulfills dietary and nutritional needs for a healthy life. It comes down to a key question: how can we make sure there's food for everyone on this earth?
Tom Hetherington is a barley, wheat, and chickpea farmer in the Western Downs in Queensland, Australia. His produce goes to the feed or export market. In a subtropical climate that faces frequent drought, Tom says moisture is his biggest concern: "The single most limiting factor in the agriculture industry is moisture. Generally speaking, we don't get enough rain, or we get too much rain.”
In summer, the cost of growing crops increases. Farmers spray the ground to preserve moisture—but that means more weeds to manage, and it doesn’t stop the unpredictability of how the moisture might remain or evaporate.
In 2010 Tom's farm was booming with chickpea crops, but they didn't yield because of high moisture levels. The same moisture caused several flooding and cyclone events in Queensland in early 2011. Cyclone Yasi wiped out 75% of Australia’s banana plantations, which meant more exports, more mileage, and a 400% increase in the price of bananas.
While a banana shortage may seem trivial, it’s part of a larger issue of not being able to produce the food we need to feed the world. Some regions face challenges due to sub-standard facilities, political will, and a fast-changing climate.
"A lack of food security undermines peace and contributes to social instability and underdevelopment, and keeps people trapped in poverty."
Uma and Krishna Sharma grow apples in Jashla, a rural village in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh at the foothills of the Himalayas. Their challenges include low truck numbers to distribute produce, and illegal clearing of forests that has depleted forest cover and caused reduced snowfall in the winters. “Farming in India, like anywhere else, is largely dependent upon the weather,” Uma says. “A good winter with enough snow, good rains to irrigate the plants. There are almost no irrigation facilities in Himachal for growing apples—so it’s totally at the mercy of nature.”
Nature in this region is stunning, but it’s also home to creatures that compete with humans for food. “We deploy some of our farm labor to drive them away, but it’s impossible to cover large tracts of land as fast as a monkey or a parrot!” Uma says. Though admittedly a slightly funny image, it truly affects livelihoods and the availability of nourishment for humans.
At its core, food security is a moral issue, according to FAO senior economist Andrea Cattaneo. “Every human deserves the right to feed themselves with dignity,” he says. “People’s health depends on it. Our ability to learn and grow as children, and to perform and achieve as adults, depends on it. A lack of food security undermines peace and contributes to social instability and underdevelopment, and keeps people trapped in poverty. Sadly, we see the effects of food insecurity much more prominently in areas where conflict prevails, in areas that are most vulnerable to climate change, and in areas where natural resources are unsustainably managed.”
This year, global hunger dropped to its lowest point in 25 years. What’s more, it’s about to fall to its lowest point ever. Virtually every type of business, organization and community group under the sun has stepped up to the challenge of combating food insecurity—and we’re building a better world where fewer people are going hungry, farmers are growing better food, and we’re better able to distribute food.
ORGANIZATIONS AND COMMUNITY GROUPS ARE CREATING AWARENESS AND ACTION.
Food security has been a complex global issue since world hunger became recognizable at the international level. Local initiatives such as food banks and education programs are doing incredible things for individual communities, while global organizations like the FAO, World Food Program, and Oxfam are thinking big. “The FAO helps tackle the issue in a variety of ways at the global, regional, national, and local levels,” Andrea said. “This includes working with governments to strengthen national policies on food and nutrition and with regional bodies to support cooperation between countries. We also manage thousands of projects in the field, ranging from farmer field schools that teach people how to grow more food in more sustainable ways, to using drones to help countries make their farming systems more resilient to natural disasters, to working with national lawmakers to strengthen land title systems.”
TECHNOLOGY IS HELPING US GROW FOOD MORE EFFICIENTLY.
Agriculture is tough—but the tech industry is out to help ease farmers’ labor intensity. Drones are helping irrigate farmland in Nigeria, robotic machinery is helping keep weeds at bay in Australia, and big data is helping Chinese farmers understand their next steps. Agricultural technology is a red-hot area right now. Even NASA’s throwing in its hat to combat food insecurity.
New Zealand-based CropLogic provides sophisticated plant models that inform farmers' decisions—just like the sophisticated climate models for weather forecasting. Devices collect sensor data from the field along with climate data and aerial images, and spit it out into easy-to-understand prescriptions for farmers to get optimum yield with minimum effort.
“There are a lot of efficiencies that can be gained by knowing when to irrigate, when to fertilize according to what a plant actually needs, and when in the plant’s life cycle water should be supplied to increase the yield at the other end. It’s what’ll help us increase the amount of food available, the quality of that food, and the consciousness of how we use our natural resources,” says Jamie Cairns, CropLogic CEO. The technology is still in its trial phase, but has already seen results: “We’ve been able to demonstrate that we can increase yield by up to 6.5-7%—which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you remember that we’re getting this with no additional input, there’s a large impact.”
Going beyond the simplistic narrative of “starving kids in Africa,” we’re thinking about how we can make the most of the food we have—and small businesses are thinking about it, too.
ORGANIZATIONS AND INITIATIVES ARE REDUCING THE COST—AND MILEAGE—OF NUTRITIOUS FOOD.
Local initiatives like urban farms are rapidly reducing the time and distance it takes to secure food. With city populations forecasted to rise, urban agriculture is a necessary step. Peruvian efforts are creating better food production within Lima’s city limits, providing impoverished communities with access to fresh, nutritious food.
Other projects looking locally try to enhance the relationship between farmers and consumers. Imperfect partners with local farms in California to sell what would usually be discarded, “reducing food waste, increasing access to fresh produce and creating good-paying jobs,” while encouraging communities in the region to buy locally, according to CEO Ben Simon. Consumers get their produce fresh from the farm for a fraction of the price.
WE’RE LEARNING TO USE AND EAT FOOD MORE EFFICIENTLY.
Our Instagram feeds are full of pictures of food (and cats). People are talking, sharing stories, and encouraging others to think about what they’re eating. Going beyond the simplistic narrative of “starving kids in Africa,” we’re thinking about how we can make the most of the food we have—and small businesses are thinking about it, too.
New York-based WTRMLN WTR buys farmers’ seconds to create watermelon juice, and helps manage environmental parameters like rainfall and soil to optimize a trade in which 800 million pounds of unused watermelons get thrown away each year. “Refining our supply chain allows us to get as many efficiencies as possible,” says Jody Levy, WTRMLN WTR co-founder. “We even feed pigs with our leftover watermelon pulp.”
Food security is a complex, wicked problem—and we have a long way to go before every human can to nourish themselves. But we’re making progress, and as long as we stay committed, the plot will grow.