Food Security 3.0

The environment is the fifth pillar of international food security.

July 2012 was the warmest month since records began in the United States, the hottest July on record in the Northern Hemisphere, and the 329th consecutive month worldwide with a global temperature above the 20th-century average. The Greenland ice sheet melted at such an unprecedented rate this summer that NASA scientists thought there must have been a problem with their satellite images. Beijing experienced its worst flooding in 60 years, and the United States its worst drought in the past 50. It is vitally important that we continue our efforts to mitigate climate change, but we also need to accept that it is already underway and adapt our planning accordingly. In no area is this more urgent than food and food security, and this is why the recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Foundation of Food Security through Sustainable Food Systems,” is to be so warmly commended.

The most simple approach to food security (call it Food Security 1.0) is to produce more food. While the amount of food available is clearly of primordial importance, the shortcomings in this approach are fairly obvious—What good is ramping up food production, if the food is priced out of the reach of those going hungry, wasted before it reaches the plate because of inadequate refrigeration, or used for non-food purposes, such as ethanol production? Nevertheless, one sees vestiges of this approach in public discourse around the issue. It is hard to find an article on the topic that doesn’t quote the figure of a 70 percent increase in food production by 2050; but if food prices remain as high as they currently are, then that excess production simply will be unaffordable to those who need it most.

Food Security 2.0 acknowledges that there is more to the issue than merely increasing the amount of food in the world. At the World Food Summit in 2009 the “four pillars” of food security were formally defined as: 1. Availability (there must be enough food in the world); 2. Access (individuals must be able to afford it); 3. Utilization (they must have the ability to use it through adequate infrastructure for cooking, cleaning, and preparation); and 4. Stability (they must have access to food at all times, including during crises).

What the recent UNEP report makes clear and what I would like to refer to as Food Security 3.0 is that the environment is the missing “fifth pillar.” As things stand, food security and environmental stewardship are often treated as two separate issues with the former taking precedence over the latter—who cares how you are feeding a starving person, so long as she is fed? But as German environmental expert Achim Steiner puts it in the introduction to the UNEP report: While “hunger will never be made history by just shoring up the ecological foundation … we will have less and less food to distribute unless the central importance of the environment and ecological services are factored in more comprehensively.” Increasing the food supply while failing to address the destructive effects of industrial agriculture may increase the availability of food in the short term, but it is just pushing the problem down the road where it will be progressively harder to tackle. At some point things are going to hit a wall; or perhaps, with the two largest grain producing regions in the world crippled by drought and food prices poised to surpass the all-time highs that they touched a mere four years ago, they already have done so. 

In a previous SSIR article, I wrote about the advantages from an investment point of view of owning organic farmland. I stand by those earlier points and would reiterate that there is very good money to be made in this sector by those with a long-term investment horizon. But the magnitude of the problem is such that it is clearly not enough for a few wealthy individuals or enlightened institutions to invest in such farmland and reap the rewards. It is vital for society as a whole to transition to organic techniques which do not deplete scarce resources, which rebuild degraded soil fertility, and which are more resilient to extreme weather events—and to do so as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, industrial farming practices are so entrenched and so heavily subsidized that this will not be easy. British investor Jeremy Grantham in his most recent quarterly newsletter describes gearing up for 100 percent organic farming as “a herculean task that will take decades of effort, including government participation and considerable research.” But as he goes on to say, “This is a task for which there is absolutely no alternative in the long run.” 

Government clearly has a role to play—restructuring federal insurance programs in the United States so that they do not favor intensive monocultures would be a step in the right direction and, on a global level, subsidies that encourage the use of synthetic fertilizer should be halted. Consumers can (and already are) demanding more organically certified food. Food corporations need to do more to respond to this demand. Finally, I would like to make a plea to foundations to step in and provide the missing funding for research and training that will allow organic agriculture to realize its full potential.  This is a humanitarian and not just an environmental imperative.

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  • Jospeh Porterfield's avatar

    BY Jospeh Porterfield

    ON August 25, 2012 11:11 AM

    Good post.  Together with energy and water, food production is one of the most significant issues we face.  We know so much more about ecosystem interdependencies than when we embarked on industrial scale agri production.  Studies are now highlighting the damage caused by a relentless drive for increase in yield and how vulnerable we are to events such as this year’s drought.  Our production systems should reflect this increased awareness. 

    With these challenges also comes opportunity and you are also right to note the need for investors to recognise the benefit of incorporating a sustainable agri exposure into their investment programmes.  Indeed, without the push from long horizon stakeholders such as pensions, the entrenched and powerful players will continue pursuing short-term profits.

  • BY Bruce Rubin

    ON August 27, 2012 12:23 PM

    This is a good article and I believe initiatives that reduce the spoilage of what is now grown will reduce the pressure on growing more.
    Focusing over 95% of dollars invested in agriculture solely on growing more needs to be reviewed and balanced with monies on keeping more of what is grown edible longer and eaten rather than spoiling.
    There are close to one billion tons of fruits and vegetables spoiling each year how can that be reduced by 50-75%?
    We might be able to feed the unborn better with these types of solutions regardless of what happens with climate and other issues

  • BY Jennifer Wang

    ON August 30, 2012 02:41 PM

    Good article and argument, however, it is not clear in your article how you would define the proposed “environment” pillar, parallel to the definitions you provided parenthetically for the other 4 pillars.

    it seems to me that “environment”—assumed to encompass environmental stewardship, environmentally sustainable food production methods, and safe and healthy living environments—is not really a 5th pillar of international security, but an overarching necessity for the other 4 pillars to stand.

    I do agree fully with your call to action for governments, the food industry, and donors to invest more heavily in organic agriculture to deliver environmental and food security/health co-benefits.

  • BY Brad Wilson

    ON August 30, 2012 07:30 PM

    The glaring omission here is that 80% of the “undernourished” are rural, and 70% of LDC population, plus the fact that the US sets global market prices, plus, unlike OPEC which managed supply to raise prices, the US, though dominant, chose to lower farm commodity prices, to lose money, to secretly subsidize domestic and foreign agribusiness buyers:  dumping on LDC farmers below full costs (USDA-ERS “Commodity Costs and Returns”) every year 1981-2008 (except 1996) for a sum of 8 crops (listed below).  Ok, so it’s a food poverty crisis, caused in large part, by low farm prices, not high.  Even with the higher prices today, people still die from low farm prices, since they became severely impoverished, reserve resources drained from low prices, then also can’t afford higher prices. It’s been such savage dumping (so the US can lose money on exports) that it has created this savage dilemma.

    Grain prices came no where near to “all time highs” in 2008, or now. You must adjust for inflation.  The UN food price index only goes back to 1990, but 1990-2010 had the lowest prices in history, (especially 1997-2005 which had most of the 10 lowest prices of all time [back to 1866, etc.] for corn, wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, sorghum grain, oats, barley,) so it’s not “all time.” There is no other 20 year period this low, but no one in the media has bothered to check this out.  Tell the media:  farm prices, even today’s higher prices, have increased far less than newspaper prices, since the 1940s:  (comparison data: “Brad Wilson” “Price of Corn Not Really a Record”)

    Sadly, this article, and it’s falsehoods, is almost the only point of view told by mainstream media and often by hunger groups and the food movement!  Click my name for more documentation.

  • Rufo Quintavalle's avatar

    BY Rufo Quintavalle

    ON August 31, 2012 06:19 PM

    Thank you all for the comments.

    Joseph, I agree that food, water and energy are all going to be major challenges in years to come.  And present major opportunities.  Many different ways to gain exposure to these themes but an investment in organic farmland - which has been shown to outperform in water stressed conditions and is not exposed to the rising costs of fossil-fuel based fertilizers - is a way to play all three at once.

    Bruce, post-harvest efficiency is vital and you are right to point out that a lot of the money flowing into ag investment at the moment is doing so from a simplistic perspective of yield increase.  Addressing the way in which food is produced rather than focusing on the amount will allow farmers and investors to earn better net returns through lower input costs and will also be beneficial to the planet.  But unless the issue of food wastage is addressed no farming system, no matter how sustainable, will enable us to feed a growing world population.  Analogies to be drawn with energy sector: money needs to flow to renewables AND to energy efficiency. 

    Jennifer, I take your point that I am a little brief as to what I mean by that big word “environment”.  Apologies.  The UNEP report goes into much more depth on the issue not just from the perspective of farming but also of fisheries.  They more or less make the point you are making that this “fifth pillar” is “an overarching necessity for the other 4 pillars to stand”.  They divide the issue in two and look at both natural resources (fertile land, water etc.) and ecosystem services, and propose solutions that will address one or both of these aspects as they relate to agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture.

    The FAO food price index (in both nominal and real terms) is flirting with the record highs it touched in 2008 and 2011 – and the data released by the World Bank this Thursday would suggest that August 2012 may well set another new record.  Brad, you are absolutely right that the FAO index does not go back beyond 1990 but if we extrapolate backwards the picture is hardly any rosier, first because we are approaching levels (in real terms) last seen in the aftermath of the 1970s food crisis and second because this current price rise is proving to be prolonged (at five years and counting it is longer than those in 1995-96, 1972-74 and 1910-14) and shows no signs of abating.  The OECD predicts that “agricultural commodity prices will remain on a high plateau throughout the next decade, underpinned by the assumption that oil prices will continue to rise in both nominal and real terms”.  While generally speaking, high prices are good news for farmers the fact that oil is also predicted to stay high means that those farmers using industrial farming techniques will see much of their additional income cancelled out by rising input costs.

  • While the Food Security 3.0 makes some important points, there are some additional considerations.  If we are to have food security, not only do we need to move toward organic farming, we all need to change our diets to include very little if any meat and dairy products. Growing corn to feed to cattle is expensive in terms of land and water use.  It also uses land that could be used for growing grains, fruit and vegetables that would provide considerably more food for people.

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