Where we stand in understanding global food security

ID-100201149The First International Conference on Global Food Security took place on the 29th September to the 2nd October in Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands. The conference brought together scientists and experts across disciplines to discuss food security from many different aspects.

Louise Fresco, Professor at the University of Amsterdam, in her presentation, discussed what we know about food security and what the global situation is. Food security has various dimensions and many complexities that make it hard to generalise. Around 870 million people in the world are hungry in terms of basic calories and 2 billion people are undernourished, that is they lack adequate vitamins and minerals in their diet.

Hearing figures such as these it is hard to see where we are having any effect in tackling hunger but progress is being made. In the last 2 decades, 1 billion people’s nutrition has improved and the UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing the number of those in poverty by half was achieved 5 years early. A century ago half the population was malnourished, this is now 1 in 8 people. A figure that is declining although still unacceptable. Three quarters of the decrease in poverty and malnutrition has occurred in China and there is an urgent need for similar progress in Africa and India where the situation is made more complicated by political failures.

Poverty and hunger, as discussed in chapter 2 of One Billion Hungry, are inextricably linked and can take many forms, as outlined by Professor Fresco:

1)      Civil unrest, failed states and in the aftermath of natural disasters where people lack the basic means of survival and have been driven from their homes.

2)      Rural poverty. The majority of the world’s poor and hungry reside in rural areas where there are fewer opportunities to earn income and, as in many developing countries, agricultural yields are low.

3)      Urban poverty, which is becoming increasingly significant with urbanisation. Urban poverty can also occur in developed countries. In the US, for example, 49 million people are on food stamps.

Given their dimensions, reducing hunger and poverty requires targeted approaches ranging from humanitarian aid and emergency response, in the case of say war or natural disasters, to child nutrition interventions in the first 1000 days of life, as well as agricultural development and general economic development.

70% of the world’s population is involved in agriculture so investments in this sector in countries with a dominant agricultural workforce can have huge implications for the poor and hungry. In other countries, where agriculture is less dominant, economic development can help reduce poverty. As Prof. Fresco stressed, there are very strong indications that equitable growth in developing nations helps to reduce poverty and hunger.

Prof. Fresco then turned to the issues of supply and demand. The world needs 50% more calories by 2030. The population is growing at 0.75% per year (mainly in Africa) and GDP is growing at 1.8% per year, creating enormous increases in demand, particularly as diets change with affluence. The future demand will be a function of these shifts in food preferences coming from the emerging middle classes. Africa has a middle class population of some 200 million people. Our food systems and demographics are also changing, which will impact demand. Family sizes are becoming smaller, there is a greater call for transparency and clearer labelling of food, and supermarkets are driving vertical consolidation of food chains. So how do we cope with these changes, particularly the need for greater amounts of food in the future?

Prof. Fresco pointed to the succession of green revolutions the world has seen. The first, the original Green Revolution, occurring in the 1960s. She also notes a second green revolution in the 1970s, much the same as the first but with greater applicability to a variety of crops and geographies. A third, the Doubly Green Revolution, coined by Gordon Conway in the 1980s, was a plea for environmentally friendly improvements in agriculture, taking into account the multiple functions of landscapes, soil health, biodiversity and use of appropriate technologies. In a sense a fine tuning and broadening of the original Green Revolution.

Now, Prof. Fresco explained, we need a fourth revolution or paradigm change that has a double focus. On the one hand optimum resource efficiency should be at its heart. We need to obtain the highest unit output per unit of input, be it energy, greenhouse gas emissions, chemicals or labour. To achieve this, water, technologies and nutrients must be delivered to the crop or livestock at the right time in the right amounts and farming systems must become closed, that is that waste originating on farms is put to use within the same system. Achieving sustainability will require much more work on implementation as opposed to new research, although there is much research to be done to understand how to improve photosynthetic efficiencies.

The second challenge for this new revolution is the need to address consumer demands and the entire food chain. It can’t just be an agronomic revolution as demand is driving supply. This challenge is largely political, and involves balancing different objectives such as animal welfare and greenhouse gas emissions.

Prof. Fresco urged that intensification must occur where possible if we are to produce more food. But food security is about more than just calories. It is about nutrients, vitamins, making healthy food choices, sustainability and healthy cooking methods. Food security is ultimately the responsibility of the state, who create the conditions for sustainable production systems and access to food for all. The priority for tackling food insecurity should be India and Africa where some states may be too weak or corrupt to enforce the needed policies. Determining how to get optimal use of land and labour in these countries is urgent.

Achieving a fourth, and much larger in scale, revolution will be a challenge but one that, given our achievements to date, we believe is possible.

To hear more presentations from the conference click here.


  1. drbausman says:

    Reblogged this on Dr. B. A. Usman's Blog and commented:
    “70% of the world’s population is involved in agriculture so investments in this sector in countries with a dominant agricultural workforce can have huge implications for the poor and hungry” studies

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