Although the Green Revolution is credited with keeping food prices historically low, the global food system is failing today in two major ways: it is unsustainable and consumes resources faster than can be replenished naturally, and it contributes to extreme poverty, suffering and disease. “Adequate food for all’ must thus include the ability of the food system to nourish and fuel humanity equitably and sustainably. The future of humanity rests on being able to do more with less.
Nearly half the world’s population suffers from the effects of a food system that, in an effort to feed a growing population and meet some societies’ demands for a richer diet, is shifting global supply towards higher-end markets. This results in an unprecedented new global paradigm. At one end of the spectrum, food insecurity is growing among the most vulnerable, in both low- and middle-income countries, resulting in 1-billion hungry people. At the other end, 1-billion people are over-consuming, creating a new public health epidemic in chronic conditions such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Caught in the middle are more than 2-billion people who face the silent killer of “hidden hunger” – malnutrition – from not getting enough critical micronutrients to support optimal health and productivity.
Altogether, hunger, malnutrition and over-consumption exact an enormous toll. Malnutrition alone is responsible for 11% of the global disease burden, a third of all childhood deaths and losses of up to 3&% of a country’s gross domestic product a year. Over-consumption and poor nutrition are an underlying cause of and a risk factor in non-communicable diseases which cause about two-thirds of the world’s deaths, with 80% of them in low- and middle-income countries. Estimates of economic losses from NCDs will have amounted to $35-trillion between 2005 and 2030. Achieving food security requires looking at the broader impact of the food system and pivoting the focus to improving nutritional outcomes to avert this tremendous public health and economic burden.
A continent seeking self-sufficiency
This need is most pressing in Africa. It is the only continent that does not grow enough food to nourish itself. Since the Green Revolution, Africa remains the only region where average yields are stagnant and food production per capita has seen a steady decline. Much of this can be explained by changes in rainfall patterns, soil mismanagement and insufficient investments in infrastructure and water management. Public investment in agricultural water development in sub-Saharan Africa has actually declined over the past two decades. The lack of political will and inadequate investment in natural resource management is inhibiting Africa from not only becoming self-sufficient, but also burgeoning into the last remaining breadbasket of the world.
Addressing Africa’s food security challenge requires a paradigm shift from a narrow focus on increasing yields towards a more comprehensive global food system where the metrics of success are nutritional outcomes. The focus should be on nutrition an acre or nutrition a unit of water (or any other variable that controls food production), rather than on tons a hectare or tons a litre of water. The goal must be to produce more affordable food of better nutritional quality while using less water a unit of nutrition. Linking the drivers of sustainable agriculture directly to the critical goal of nutrition allows more comprehensive approaches to the big challenges. While improvements in yield contribute to this goal, higher nutritional content of food, a more balanced diet and reductions in waste and spoilage are all additional, often lower-cost, mechanisms to improve the outcome for the same unit of land or water.
Applying this metric to the food system will not only shape Africa’s response to food security, but could also address the looming health crisis caused by over- and under-nutrition, climate change and natural-resource management. In addition, by 2020, worsening water security could trigger another global food crisis, causing a shortfall of up to 30% in cereal production. Today, more than a third of the world’s population is affected by water scarcity. Climate change is expected to worsen this by increasing the frequency and severity of floods and droughts.
The interdependencies among water, agriculture and health are well understood, but poorly integrated into comprehensive multi-sector approaches. Water scarcity is one of the biggest limiting factors in the world’s ability to feed and sustain its growing population. In Africa, more than 80% of freshwater withdrawals go to agriculture, of which as much as 40% is wasted due to inefficient agricultural practices. It takes approximately one litre of water to produce one calorie of food energy. The basic diet of the poor, predominantly consisting of plant-based staple crops, would require approximately at least 2,000 litres a day. However, diverse diets that include the regular consumption of meat could require as much as 5,000 or more litres a day since, on average, meat requires 10 times the water per calorie from plants.
The importance of water security
Factoring water security into the nutrition-food security paradigm creates a mechanism to redefine goals and metrics to measure sustainable progress towards establishing a food system capable of adequately nourishing a population of 9-billion by 2030. Integrating the sectoral goals of health, agriculture and sustainability will promote approaches that preserve that which is most scarce – water – and that which is of greatest public value – the ability of the food system to nourish, fuel and sustain society. In a similar way that the carbon credit system drives market mechanisms and commercial processes in the direction of low emissions, so the agriculture, health and sustainability communities can converge to design a credit system to encourage governments, industry, farmers and consumers to adopt new technologies that maximise yields of nutritional crops to units of water and measure their success in the amount of nutrition delivered to those who need it. This is a sure-fire way to ensure quality in the food system and to align investments from both the public and private sectors to maximise and preserve nutrient density, reduce food spoilage and waste, and improve the supply chain.
Over the next 1,000 days, 75-million African children will face the most critical development period of their lives – from womb to age two. Science has proven that a well-nourished child is more likely to complete her or his education, possess a higher IQ and earn up to 46% more over his or her lifetime. In fact, a child’s attained height for age at two years is the single best predictor of human capital.
All solutions for Africa rest on the ability to ensure that today’s children have a chance to reach their full economic potential. Investing in the future of youth by ensuring they are adequately nourished will not only help break the cycle of poverty, but will also empower them with the potential to raise the continent of Africa.
As Nelson Mandela said: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom… There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” iM
This article appeared in the G20 Cannes Summit 2011 publication