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19th February 2020
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Eat less, grow more – and waste nothing

Posted 19/01/2011 by KatieJ

News that world food prices are going up will have come as no surprise to readers of C&I’s regular features on the issue of food security. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO’s) latest assessment, global food prices have now exceeded the levels in 2007 and 2008, which triggered food riots in many of the world’s poorest regions, while in the UK, food price inflation stands at 3.3%, well above the UK treasury target.

As Daily Telegraph columnist Geoffrey Lean recently pointed out, however, the cause of this latest price spike is not shortages but growing demand, fuelled by burgeoning world population growth. ‘Then [two years ago] bad harvests had produced a real shortage,’ Lean wrote. ‘Now we have bumper crops: the past three years have produced the biggest harvests ever. The issue is not one of supply, but of demand.’

That this current state of affairs has not yet prompted a further round of unrest, he continued, is down to the price of rice remaining relatively stable, while it is mainly higher quality wheat and maize grains – ‘eaten by the better off’- that have become more expensive.

As the world’s biggest food importer, Europe’s role in influencing global food prices is undisputed. A study by Germany’s Humboldt University, described in Issue 2 of C&I, has recently demonstrated that an area of farmland the size of Germany in the developing world is now dedicated to serving European food requirements – what the OECD-FAO refer to as a ‘land grab’.

And declining agricultural productivity – the yield of crops per hectare – already threatens to increase this land area still further; while according to plant experts, traditional plant breeding programmes are failing to deliver the improved yield returns achieved in the past.

With the world’s population expected to hit 9bn by 2050, experts argue that food prices are bound to rise even higher – providing a greater incentive for local farmers to start chopping down trees or turning over important wildlife habitats to agriculture, exacerbated by the drive to derive more of our energy from biofuels.

So what then is the recipe for solving this looming food crisis? Food waste is the obvious place to start. A recent report, Population explosion: can the planet cope?, published by the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), is not the first to point out that much of the demand for food could be met simply by reducing food wastage. In India, 35-40% of fruit and vegetable production – an amount greater than the entire consumption of the UK – is lost because of a lack of modern storage and distribution systems. In the developed world, meanwhile, we currently throw away nearly a third of all of the produce bought in supermarkets.

As well as increased urbanisation and the effects on the world’s energy, water, and finance systems, the IME report warns that food will become an increasingly precious commodity and developed areas such as the UK will be forced to ditch their ‘throwaway lifestyle’.

Cutting wastage alone, however, is unlikely to be the whole solution. It would be nice to think that we could continue harnessing the planet’s natural resources as we always have in the past; that the world doesn’t need GM.

But the Earth’s natural potential is rapidly being used up. Already, according to WWF’s 2008 Living Planet report, worldwide people are consuming about 30% more natural resources than the planet can replace. Food, metals, water, minerals and nutrients are all being gobbled up at an alarming rate. And if everyone in the world lived as we do in the US or Europe then we would need three planets not just one to satisfy all our demands for resources.

GM crops won’t be the only answer – and are very far from the ideal solution. But without them, it is not easy to see how farmers will achieve the goal of raising productivity by the FAO’s estimated target of 70% by 2050 – while using fewer chemicals.

Perhaps a better solution would be if we all ate less, not just less meat – but everything. Think of the energy and space savings – not to mention the health benefits – if we only consumed exactly what we needed. Maybe nanotechnology could help: how about a nano-tech fruit extract or a nano-encapsulated meal? Although you might want to take a separate pill alongside to help you swallow it.

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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    21/06/2013 10:53

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