- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
The world will have trouble feeding itself in decades to come unless countries undertake “major transformations” to the way they grow and distribute food, the United Nations said Wednesday in a report that paints a bleak and hungry future.
Because of growing global population — experts estimate the world will have 10 billion mouths to feed in 2050, vesus 7.3 billion today — agricultural output will need to increase by 50 percent, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in “The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges.”
There are a number of related challenges beyond just a growing population. Diets are changing from heavy on cereals to include more meat, which requires significantly more grains and water. (The average Chinese person went from consuming 28.6 lbs. of meat per year in 1982 to 138.9 lbs. of meat in 2016).
Groundwater sources themselves are being depleted rapidly. From the central valley of California to northern China, water reserves in 21 of 37 of the world’s largest aquifers are on the decline. (Two billion people around the world rely on aquifers for their water supply.)
Likewise, climate change is altering weather and precipitation patterns, and in decades to come is expected to shrink agricultural yields, especially in already-vulnerable regions like the Sahel in Africa.
Together, that’s creating a ticking time bomb down the road. The U.N. estimates that 600 million people will be undernourished in 2030, and overall global food security will be “in jeopardy,” unless there is a concerted effort to change eating habits and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
Avoiding the report’s dire forecasts is possible, if pricey, the report’s lead author told Foreign Policy. Lorenzo Bellu, senior economist with the FAO, said additional annual investments of $265 billion would be needed through 2030 to keep the hungry fed. That could include investments in new agricultural technology to improve crop yields, researching genetically modified organisms, new distribution methods, and more investments in humanitarian aid and development. But it would also require shaking unsustainable habits, such as intensive agriculture, over-consumption of meats, and little practical action to tackle the causes of climate change.
“Business as usual is not an option anymore,” he said.
“The challenges we identified go beyond the capacities of any single specific country,” Bellu said. He noted that in many cases hunger is due to the lack of access or purchasing power, not a dearth of food. Countries wracked by conflict are especially prone to disruptions to agricultural activities and food distribution.
Currently, one country, South Sudan, is already in famine, and three others — Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia, are all on the brink of famine. (It’s no coincidence that those countries are embroiled in armed conflict; hunger and war go hand-in-hand.)
The world would “absolutely, without question” be able to feed itself in coming decades if it were simply a matter of growing enough food, said Kimberly Flowers, director of the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The problem, like in South Sudan, is everything not related to food that manages to get in the way of a full belly.
“It’s not just about responding to hungry people, it’s about responding to longstanding political strife, conflict, and inequality” she told FP.
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