By Alice Weatherston

04 June 2015 - 11:30

Cultivating fertile land can result in environmental degradation. Image © Ian Hayhurst licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0  and adapted from the original on Flickr.
Cultivating fertile land can result in environmental degradation. Photo ©

Ian Hayhurst, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

With one in eight of the world’s population undernourished, and a global population set to reach nine billion by 2050, we look at some of the possible solutions to food scarcity, in time for World Environmental Day on 5 June 2015.

Although a very intricate debate, solving the problem of food scarcity has mainly centred on two broad areas for action: making more food and changing our lifestyles.

Making more food

Ask anybody 'how can we feed more people?' and their answer will probably be 'produce more food'. Many experts believe that food production will need to increase by around 50 per cent by 2050 in order to ensure globally stable access to food, but how can this be achieved?

Farming more land

It may seem like a logical answer, but farming more land is widely regarded as an unrealistic and detrimental solution. Given the long history of agricultural practice worldwide, the majority of productive land is already used for food production. Increased urbanisation and continued degradation of existing agricultural land are putting even more pressure on these areas, and agricultural expansion is often impossible in many areas of the world.

In addition to this, cultivating remaining fertile land often results in huge environmental degradation. Replacing diverse tropical rainforests with single-crop species, displacing animals from their natural environments, and pumping agricultural pollutants into the ecosystem all result in extensive deterioration of natural systems, and contribute to the effects of climate change.

Increasing yields

In contrast, increasing the productivity of farming land by increasing crop yields currently presents a more sustainable solution to food scarcity. In developing countries, which are set to be most affected by the food security crisis, it's estimated that some farmers currently only produce around 20 per cent of what is possible.

Some scientists are putting their efforts into bioengineering as a way to alleviate this problem – that is, manipulating the genetic characteristics of plant species so that they produce more food, more reliably. Examples include transferring genes from drought-resistant grass species to those that are highly vulnerable to drought, introducing disease resistance to crop species, and increasing growth rates and seed produced per plant.

Bioengineering, although controversial, could potentially enable a more sustainable and affordable method of increasing yields. While solutions such as applying intensive fertilisers and using high-tech farming equipment are effective in large economies with significant potential for capital investment, they are inappropriate in developing countries. But by creating crops that are better able to survive droughts, food crises in developing countries could be avoided, and food security vastly improved at a local level. Enabling countries to become sustainable in their own right has more recently been highlighted as central to alleviating future food scarcity.

Changing our lifestyles

Despite worldwide calls to increase food production, one of the most interesting facts hidden within the food security debate is that there is already more than enough food produced on earth every day to feed every single person – an estimated 2700 calories each. However, we consume all of this and more.

The main reason for this huge consumption is waste. Despite high levels of food production, only around two-thirds of this nutritional value is directly transferred to humans. Developed countries are the main culprits. Here, essential food is lost directly through what we throw away and through the production of livestock and bio-fuels.

Waste reduction and reduced meat consumption would therefore go a long way to preventing a food crisis. This is easier said than done, of course. As gross domestic product (GDP) rises in developing countries, demand for meat increases – by around five to six per cent per annum. Western diets made up of large quantities of intensively reared meat begin to predominate. It seems unlikely that this trend will reverse any time soon.

But there are other things we can do to improve the future of our food. These include: improving the way we distribute food around the world; creating food stores which can be used in times of crisis; supporting our local food systems; and helping farmers in developing countries produce their own food more reliably.

Despite much doom and gloom in the discussion on food security, there is hope. This is not the first time that worries over growing populations and dwindling food supplies have been expressed. And we should remember that solutions have come along before, such as the Green Revolution in the 1960s. Whether the modern-day solution lies in science and technology or a change in our lifestyles, one thing is for certain: change is needed soon.

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