Food Security: Challenges and Solutions

Today there is a massive imbalance in food security, an increasing population, and steadily declining soil conditions. This article will assess some of the challenges of providing food security and evaluate potential solutions.

The world’s population is gradually rising and is due to plateau at around 9 billion people [1]. We cannot effectively produce and distribute food at the current population and as time goes on this problem will only become more significant. Despite technological advances and the success of the green revolution on increasing crop yields, malnutrition still affects a large proportion of the world’s population [1]. This is juxtaposed with the rising health costs associated with obesity and overeating that are seen in many developed countries [1] and this isn’t the only contradiction in our food systems. Approximately the same percentage of food is wasted in both developed and developing countries, but for vastly differing reasons.

Developing countries such as India lose 30 – 40% of their produce to spoilage. Cold storage is not widely available in these countries and even staples are susceptible. In India alone a third of all rice is lost to mould and pests in storage. Whereas in developed nations such as the UK, most of the 30 – 40% food waste is post-retail for superficial bruising and misshapen produce and an over reliance on use by dates.

On a slightly more positive note, per capita income is, on average, rising globally. While this has the potential to decrease poverty-related malnutrition, it also causes a transition from grain-based to meat-based diets. This is problematic due to how much more energy intensive meat production is in comparison to crops. Energy conversion from grain to meat is only ~10% and a vast area of land is required to plant crops for animal feed.

The pressure for agricultural land area will only increase as pressures from urbanisation, soil erosion, desertification and salinization increase. Agriculture is currently unsustainable and causes issues such as nitrous oxide and methane pollution, nutrient run off, eutrophication, phosphorus mining and water shortages.

In order to have the greatest impact, solutions should be based in developing countries such as south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where the greatest yield gaps are. Yield gaps are the difference between the yield produced and the theoretical maximum crop yields. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, crop yields are still less than 2 tons per hectare of land, whereas in the UK yields average around 8 tons per hectare [2]. This deficit is part of the cycle of poverty in these regions. Farmers cannot afford the upfront costs of inputs such as fertilizers and irrigation that would increase their crop yields and their incomes [2].

Genetically engineered crops could have a role to play in the solution to this problem. A study by Bishopp et al (2015) suggests that genetically modifying root architecture could produce hardier varieties of crops, able to exploit even low water or low nutrient conditions. For example, the study found that traits such as deep roots with narrow root xylem could be transplanted into staple food crops to make them better adapted for dry conditions.

Genetic modification could also play a substantial role in reducing nutrient deficiencies in poor populations. Biofortification of staple crops such as rice and wheat, have greater potential to save lives lost to malnutrition than supplements and are more sustainable long term. Golden rice 2 has between 9 – 37 ug/g of β carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and has been trialed in the Philippines [3]. Another lesser known GM crop containing β carotene is Golden mustard, which can contain up to 600 ug/g, however this degrades rapidly when pressed and cooked into mustard seed oil to around 47 ug/g. As mustard oil is very commonly used in countries such as India, this transgenic crop could provide the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A in just a few drops [5]. A multivitamin corn variety has also been engineered, though it isn’t commercially available yet, containing β carotene, ascorbate and folate [5].

Increasing regional and global connectivity in these areas will allow regional specialisation of crops and allow greater avenues for export trade. Ultimately however, infrastructure improvements to roads and transport is down to local governance to put in place. Cold storage facilities are also essential to prevent spoilage and season market gluts from decreasing the value of produce. A potential solution to both the transport, processing and cold storage needed could be the Dearman engine [4]. The Dearman engine is a carbon neutral way to produce electricity using liquid nitrogen which can also provide cold storage due to the below freezing temperatures of liquid air. In the book “We do things differently” by Stevenson (2017) the Dearman engine is explored to power conveyor belts and small electric vehicles while keeping food fresh and cold during transport.

Other solutions include moving away from meat focused diets or producing meat more sustainably. For example, livestock that are grass fed on grazing land that is unsuitable for other agriculture could decrease the pressure on land used to produce crops for animal feed. The same principle applies to chickens and pigs raised on food that would otherwise be wasted (and we certainly have enough of that!).

To summarise, it is essential that we act towards global food security to ensure that the global population can be provided with safe, nutritious food that is sustainably produced. A stacked approach of multiple methods could provide a better answer to food insecurity than any one avenue and targeting areas that have higher levels of malnutrition such as South Asia and Africa could yield the greatest results in the shortest timeframe. In developing countries, there is a growing responsibility to be thoughtful about the foods we consume and the waste and carbon footprint that accompanies it. It is easy to be remiss about issues that do not necessarily affect us. Healthy eating educational campaigns such as “Change4Life” and schemes to reduce our meat consumption such as “Meatless Mondays” and “Veganuary” can collectively help us live healthier and more sustainably.

[1]  Godfray, H. Charles J., et al. “Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People.” Science, vol. 327, no. 5967, 2010, pp. 812–818. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40509896. Accessed 16 Jan. 2020.
[2] Bishopp, A., Lynch, J. The hidden half of crop yields. Nature Plants 1, 15117 (2015) doi:10.1038/nplants.2015.117
[3] Paine, Jacqueline A., et al. “Improving the Nutritional Value of Golden Rice through Increased Pro-Vitamin A Content.” Nature biotechnology 23.4 (2005): 482-7. ProQuest. 16 Jan. 2020 .
[4] Stevenson, M. (2017). We Do Things Differently. Profile Books.
[5] Berman, J., Zhu, C., Pérez-Massot, E. et al. Can the world afford to ignore biotechnology solutions that address food insecurity?. Plant Mol Biol 83, 5–19 (2013) doi:10.1007/s11103-013-0027-2

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