Without drastic changes to our global food system, as many as 122 million more people could slip into extreme poverty by 2030. That's the upshot of a report released last week by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
The report, released just ahead of this week's meeting of the 43rd Committee on World Food Security, highlights the close relationship between climate change, poverty and food security.
"Keeping climate change within manageable levels can only be achieved with the contribution of the agriculture sectors," FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva wrote in the report's foreword. Roughly a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector.
"The challenge," da Silva said, "is to reduce those emissions while meeting unprecedented demand for food."
Indeed, demand for food is expected to increase by as much as 60 percent by 2050, in response to population growth and rising incomes.
“Food supply shortfalls would lead to major increases in food prices," the report states, "while increased climate variability would accentuate price volatility.”
Many of the people most at risk are the very ones producing our food — mostly smallholder farmers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Simply producing more food is not an option, however, as more intensive agriculture could exacerbate the problem by increasing emissions. What is needed is a total transformation of our agricultural system, from pre-production all the way down to the individual consumer.
Da Silva framed the need for such transformation as a "moral imperative,” noting that those who would be worst affected by rising temperatures have contributed least to the problem.
While the threats laid out in the FAO report are real, our situation isn’t hopeless. Many of the tools needed to avert the looming ag-ocalypse already exist.
“Wide-spread adoption of practices such as the use of nitrogen-efficient and heat-tolerant crop varieties, zero-tillage and integrated soil fertility management would boost productivity and farmers’ incomes, and help lower food prices,” the report's authors wrote.
Even small changes could have a big impact. Just by adopting more nitrogen-efficient crop varieties, developing countries could reduce the number of food insecure by more than 120 million by 2050.
Still, economic, political and social barriers stand in the way of widespread adoption of more sustainable practices.
“Often,” the authors wrote, “adoption is hampered by policies, such as input subsidies, that perpetuate unsustainable production practices rather than those that promote resource-use efficiency, soil conservation and the reduction in the intensity of agriculture’s own greenhouse gas emissions.”
The report warns a simple “technological fix” won’t solve the problem. Instead, the FAO calls for "a reorientation of agricultural and rural development policies that resets incentives and lowers the barriers to the transformation of food and agricultural systems,” particularly for the world’s nearly half-billion smallholder farmers.
Not everyone was happy with the FAO’s report. Slow Food International, a grassroots organization working to reform our global food system, criticized the FAO for giving too little attention to the role of the meat industry, land grabbing and genetically modified organisms in the present crisis.
In a statement issued this week, Slow Food referenced a 2013 report from the FAO that estimated 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions could be traced to the livestock industry.
“Eating less meat and more pulses is a necessity for our future,” the Slow Food statement read, “and public support for industrialized meat production must be stopped.”
Slow Food also called attention to the subject of land grabs, mentioned only once in the FAO report.
“Independent observatory the Land Matrix has recorded the sale of two percent of the world’s arable land to private investors since the year 2000,” Slow Food’s statement read. “(That’s) an area larger than the United Kingdom. Where once-pastoral lands are converted for intensive monocultural crop production, this also contributes to climate change.”
Finally, Slow Food took issue with the FAO’s stance on GMOs, calling the report’s silence on the issue “deafening.”
“Beyond questions of safety, the threat to food security comes from the simple fact that GMOs are patented,” the statement read, “and there increasing use is inextricably linked to corporate control of the food chain. Patenting genetic material has shifted the balance of economic power from farmers towards big business in their aggressive pursuit of profit, as small-scale farmers are forced to become customers of GM seeds every new season.
"If FAO is serious in its commitment to supporting smallholder farmers … then surely we must reduce the dependence of these smallholder farmers on patented GM seeds.”
Image credit: Pixabay
Graphic credits: U.N. FAO