The challenge calls for divergent solutions — small-scale, tech-based initiatives as much as long-term research.
Last month our Spotlight pages explored sustainable food production — how farmers can grow more food with scarce resources, and within environmental limits. But it’s an open secret that food security is not just about producing more or about how farmers work their land.
Consider just a few factors that must fall into place to ensure people have enough good food: affordable good quality seeds with high nutritional value; enough income for farmers to buy those seeds and other inputs needed to keep productivity high; and knowledge of tools and practices to help keep crops from damage and to sell them at a fair price.
For most people, any failure or weakness in this chain (or system) that gets food from the farm to the table can mean high prices or a poor diet. The stakes are even higher for those making a living from farming in the developing world.
A poor harvest can lower incomes for labourers. For smallholders, it can also compromise the family’s own food supply, contributing to poor health, raising the risk of disease and affecting farmers’ capacity to work. For their children, the health impacts can last a lifetime. Hunger and poor nutrition can start a cycle of disadvantage — poor health undermines the capacity to secure the food needed for healthy growth and well-being.
Adequate nutrition depends not just on well-functioning food systems but also on sanitation and hygiene systems and on women’s education — just two examples of how food security links with other challenges in health and development.
Linked problems and debated solutions
The collection of articles we publish this week throws some light on these linkages and highlights debates around how to progress food security.
An overview article by Michael Hoevel, consultant and former deputy director of Agriculture for Impact at Imperial College London, unravels the related but distinct phenomena that contribute to food security — and distinguishes food insecurity from hunger, a term that is often wrongly used interchangeably. Hoevel also outlines science and technology initiatives helping ensure access to enough nutritious food in the developing world.
The article contains podcasts on the role of science, innovation and nutrition-sensitive agriculture, featuring Sir Gordon Conway of Imperial College London, Lawrence Haddad and Julia Powell of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, and Emmy Simmons of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.
In an opinion article, Joe DeVries, of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), argues that seed from higher-yielding crop varieties is a “catalyst for change”, lifting traditionally agrarian societies from hunger and poverty — as long as poor farmers in remote areas can access it. DeVries describes a successful seed-supply model in African countries that has been developed with local business people and crop breeding groups.
But there are those who argue that the world already produces enough food — it just needs to be distributed more efficiently, equitably and with less waste. Grain storage specialist Digvir Jayas offers a strong case for making waste reduction a policy priority. Investing more in well-managed storage to preserve grain harvests can cut losses dramatically, he says, saving billions of dollars and feeding 1.35 billion people.
Whether it’s about better seed or reducing crop losses, small-scale farmers need evidence-based advice and support. This is where government policies, extension systems and traditional communications approaches tend to fall short, says TED fellow Rikin Gandhi. Gandhi describes how Digital Green, the company he co-founded and leads, takes a participatory approach to video training that is encouraging farmers, especially women, to adopt new practices.
Better ways of spreading knowledge and continued support for research will be important for any effort to boost food security, finds Jan Piotrowski in a news feature highlighting the value of measures like crop and dietary diversity, and improving crops’ nutritional value.
Evidence and action
Food security debates in the developing world focus on under-nutrition, but over-nutrition and obesity are increasing in some of the same places. Both challenges signal a damaged food system.
Experts focusing on strengthening the links between nutrition and agriculture suggest that gathering evidence to drive effective policies is a priority.
But different strategies require different levels of investment, with a return over varying timescales. Proving that improved seeds are effective can take many years, for example. Developing new technologies to dry crops or setting up seed-supply systems will also take time, though innovation can bring breakthroughs.
Yet there are actions we can take now, with existing knowledge. Digital Green’s work in India is an example — without neglecting people or partnerships it uses new technology to address known failures in communicating agricultural knowledge, and capitalises on women’s central role for food security.
Training and small-scale technology provided by the NGO Practical Action is also helping a poor community in Bolivia add value to the quinoa crop it produces, to improve nutrition and crucially, to transform women’s roles in their community.
And Haddad suggests what countries can do, such as ‘nutrition audits’ of agricultural activities, focusing on areas of low nutrition if markets are not working well, and looking for opportunities like biofortification.
Follow the leads
Predictions of population growth outpacing agricultural production may prove overly-simplistic, but the world has to contend with unsustainable consumption and to ensure that science can do more to boost food security where it is most needed. To do that we must channel our ingenuity and use all the tools at our disposal.
Their priorities vary, but the articles in this collection suggest that scientists and development practitioners cannot overlook credible leads — whether it’s better seeds, waste reduction, or diversifying food sources — if the challenge of feeding an estimated 9.6 billion people by 2050 is to be met. Diversity should be valued in policy just as much as it is, or should be, in farmers’ fields.