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.