World needs food wake-up call

Our world needs a wake-up call. We face a looming food crisis and we are doing next to nothing about it. Moreover, climate change is worsening an already difficult situation. Addressing the global food challenge should be a priority for Canada, given our capacity to make a positive contribution.

Our world needs a wake-up call.

We face a looming food crisis and we are doing next to nothing about it. Moreover, climate change is worsening an already difficult situation. Addressing the global food challenge should be a priority for Canada, given our capacity to make a positive contribution.

The latest body to warn of the emerging food crisis is the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change which, in a new report, warns that the combination of a growing world population and, with a growing global middle class, a shift from cereals and vegetables to a high-calorie Western-style diets of fats, sugars and animal products means the world will have to produce much more food in the decades ahead.

This will require major new investments in agricultural research and development, including development of climate-resilient agricultural systems, much more careful use of land and water resources, a major effort to spread present-day technology and farming practices to developing nations in Africa and elsewhere, the elimination of much of the waste in the food system and other steps including changes in our own diets.

But “without a global commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including agriculture, no amount of agricultural adaptation will be sufficient under the destabilized climate of the future.”

In a much warmer world, the report warns, “it will be impossible to even produce current levels of food.”

A research paper for the report included a remarkable, and sobering, description of what happens to farm production today.

It said that farmers globally produce an average of 4,600 kilocalories per capita per day.

But 600 kilocalories are lost immediately in post-harvesting while farm produce diverted to feed animals takes another 1,700 kilocalories to produce 500 kilocalories in the form of eggs, dairy products and meat.

Losses and waste in food production and in the home cost another 800 kilocalories, leaving just 2,000 kilocalories of food for actual consumption, less than half of what is produced on the farm.

As the research paper warned, we cannot continue as we have in the past.

“Modern agriculture has been successful in increasing food production over recent decades but this has led to an environmental cost due to the use of high levels of water, fertilizers and pesticides, along with a reduced number of crop species and varieties being selected,” it warned, adding that “this, in turn, has led to the depletion of aquifers, increased emissions of nitrates and pesticides into the atmosphere and biodiversity losses.”

Agriculture is estimated to account for 70 per cent of global water withdrawals from rivers and aquifers, while agricultural demand for water could rise another 30 per cent by 2030.

A British government Foresight Report on Global Food and Farming Futures last year, in similar fashion, warned that the world faced major challenges feeding itself in the years ahead.

“On the demand side, global population will increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030, and probably to over nine billion by 2050,” the report said. Moreover, “many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce.”

But the world’s ability to meet demand will be seriously tested and simply won’t be achievable without major changes.

“Competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent.”

Over the next several decades, “the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative.”

Simply looking to turn more land into farm production is not a solution.

Crop yields grew 115 per cent between 1967 and 2007, while the area of land in agricultural production grew just eight per cent.

More land could be found, the British report said but added this was unlikely given growing conversion of farm land to urbanization, while other land is being lost to desertification and salination.

It also cites a report from the International Soil Reference and Information Centre, which estimates that about 24 per cent of vegetated land in the world has undergone human-induced soil degradation, for example through erosion. At the same time, the growth in crop yields per hectare has declined significantly.

Clearly, we face a big challenge. Canada doesn’t have all the answers, by any means. But it is in our interest to play a leadership role in averting a food catastrophe.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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