Finding Systemic Solutions to Food Insecurity
There are many complex reasons why so many people are hungry in the world. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.
2.37 billion people did not have access to safe and nutritious food in 2020 and worldwide undernourishment and hunger are on the rise. The world is off-track to meet the United Nations target of achieving zero hunger by 2030 — and this was true even before the coronavirus pandemic, which has deepened the hunger crisis in the most vulnerable regions.
Food insecurity is a systemic problem requiring systemic solutions. Many of these solutions are technological in nature and require a fundamental shift in the way that food is grown. Apart from stabilising the global population or shrinking it, so that less pressure is placed on the disappearance of arable land and precious natural resources, the efficiency of growing nutritious food needs to be enhanced, based on the assumption that the world population will continue to grow, forecast to level out at 10.9 billion by 2100 (most of this growth will take place in developing countries). Food production has to be increased by 60–70% to meet increased food demand in 2050 — when the global population will be 9.7 billion.
Without systemic changes to food production, food insecurity and hunger crises will simply exacerbate in light of the greater number of people on the planet, each of whom has certain nutritional needs, which requires associated land and resource use. Let’s now focus on some of the most promising and effective strategies we can put in place to combat food insecurity.
There are many wide-ranging controversies surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). However, so far there have been no reports of negative health outcomes in the human population from GMOs. In addition, there’s a scientific consensus that food derived from GM crops pose no greater risk to human health than conventional food.
On the other hand, there are concerns about the environmental impact of GMOs. Groups such as Greenpeace say that the environmental risks associated with GMOs have not been adequately researched. Indeed, this may be so. But given the absolutely dire state of the global food situation, the benefits of GMOs may far outweigh both the actual and potential risks.
For example, GMO crops could relieve food scarcity by providing increased yields and by being more resistant to environmental stressors. Also, the prevalence of drought has sparked an interest in the development of crops that can withstand high temperatures. Creating drought-resistant crops remains a challenging enterprise, but one that is still going on.
Farming Up Instead of Across
One of the causes of food scarcity is the fact that arable land is running out. It’s running out at a rate much faster than the pace of natural processes to replace the diminished soil (caused by erosion and pollution). Academics from the University of Sheffield offer several remedies for this “catastrophic” soil loss, including recycling nutrients from sewerage, using biotechnology so that plants no longer depend upon fertilisers, and rotating crops with livestock areas to relieve pressure on arable land.
The Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka wrote a popular book called The One-Straw Revolution. In it, he described his philosophy and practice of farming in a way that doesn’t involve using agricultural chemicals, and so doesn’t diminish the soil. And yet his yields equalled or surpassed most farms in Japan. We could perhaps benefit greatly from this kind of ‘natural farming’. But there is another way we can farm, utilising technology to circumvent the problem of food scarcity.
Dr Dickson Despommier wrote a book entitled The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. In this book, he proposes vertical farming as a way to feed the growing global population. Vertical farming is the practice of growing food in vertically stacked layers, such as in a skyscraper, warehouse, or shipping container. Vertical farming uses indoor farming techniques, with some operating like greenhouses. According to Despommier, if vertical farms can be designed properly, then it could eliminate the need to create additional farmland. This will allow farmland to return to its natural state, as well as save many natural resources.
Indeed, these farms of the future would use no soil and 95% less water. This is sustainable agriculture.
Moving Away From Conventional Meat Production
Research published by Oxford Martin School found that cutting down on meat consumption would make a big difference in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is one of the causes of food scarcity. And since greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, efforts to reduce them will massively help to improve global food security.
Moreover, animal agriculture involves using much more land to feed people than would be used if plants were being grown instead. For example, beef uses 160 times more land than the equivalent in calories to produce potatoes, wheat, and rice. It also produces 11 times more greenhouse gases than these plant crops.
We waste a lot of land and resources by raising animals for food. People are going hungry, and more will go hungry, because of our demand for animal products. If there were widespread changes to how we produce protein — shifting away from conventional meat and towards plant-based meat and lab-grown meat — then we could significantly improve the problem of global food scarcity.
Food production is not sustainable. Agriculture uses 38% of the world’s total land area and is responsible for 70% of global freshwater consumption. This has prompted some commentators to argue that in order to promote sustainability we need innovative, technological solutions. This is where aquaponics comes in.
Aquaponics refers to a system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish, or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.
In conventional aquaculture, excretions from the animals being raised can accumulate, increasing toxicity. But in an aquaponic system, water breaks down the animals’ excretions into nitrates and nitrites, which are nutrients for the plants. Also, the fish eat the plants, so there’s no need to buy food for the fish.
Besides being symbiotic, aquaponics is a system of growing food that is touted as being highly sustainable. For example, it was mentioned earlier how modern agriculture uses up a lot of freshwater. Tony Abuta, the founder of Amsha Africa Foundation, says:
Water is a precious commodity in developing nations, and because the majority of the water used is recycled through the aquaponics system, significantly less water is consumed than in traditional farming.
On the other hand, it is worth pointing out the weaknesses of aquaponics, at least for developing countries. For example, the entire system runs on electricity, so it could prove to be quite expensive. In addition, rural communities would have to be supported in training in aquaponics. If you withdraw technical support, then it simply won’t work.
Yet in spite of these potential setbacks, aquaponics is still more cost-effective than traditional farming. And one of the great practical benefits of aquaponics is that fish and plants can be produced pretty much anywhere. No fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides are used, which eliminates the associated health concerns.
But in terms of the discussion on sustainability, aquaponics is a highly attractive system because it produces nutritious food using minimal amounts of fossil fuels (which are the main contributing factor of climate change). There are still sustainability challenges, of course, as well as ethical issues with using fish in this way (especially when the fish are confined in small containers), but by reducing water use and waste, aquaponics presents itself as a viable way to grow sustainable food in the future.
H20 Farm is a company in the UK that is using hydroponics for its fodder production. This company, as well as others (such as US company FodderTech), could very well revolutionise farming as we know it.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent to feed the plants. There are many different types of hydroponic systems. H20 Farm uses a unique and patented system that grows sprouting barley from seed to feed within seven days. Only seven days! So the efficiency of this system is pretty remarkable.
The company says that this system can be used anywhere in the world where power and water are available. Moreover, it can produce tonnes of fodder every day, all year round. Their system has been around for a decade and has so far been successfully implemented across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Morocco, the Middle East, and the US. People all over the world recognise the system’s attractive benefits. One important advantage the system has over traditional methods of farming is that it uses a fraction of the resources.
We need to revolutionise farming because the planet is in a dire state right now — due, in large part, to many harmful farming practices. Climate change means hotter, drier summers in the UK. While, as a Brit, you may be overjoyed at the prospect of maybe getting a real summer for once, this should also be of real concern. These conditions can lead to serious water shortages. A rising population also means greater pressure on water resources. Farmers, therefore, need to produce more food with less water. And this is exactly what H20 Farm is able to do with its hydroponics system.
It uses around just 870L of water per tonne of feed produced, compared to the typical 50,000L used in the field. It uses nearly 60 times less water compared to traditional farming! These savings are made possible by the use of the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT): water is constantly recirculated and then recycled. It also uses a fraction of many other precious resources.
It’s low on electricity use (around 35kW is needed each day to power the environmental control system) and it’s low on manpower too, needing only 2–3 hours each day for the harvesting, re-seeding, and managing. And if that doesn’t convince you how hydroponics can revolutionise farming, consider these other benefits.
This system eliminates the need for farm machinery, such as tractors, harvesters, and balers. In addition, it means a significant reduction in the regular transportation of feed and hay around the country. Less machinery and less transportation mean fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Land is also used very efficiently. The use of a vertical growing system is central to the high volume production of fresh fodder in such a small area. The company claims that its system will regularly produce 3,000kg per metre square of land per year. Arable land is quickly disappearing, so these methods of production are absolutely necessary.
In a highly influential report titled Livestock’s Long Shadow, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that global meat production is responsible for 18% of GHG emissions. The main sources of emissions are feed production (45%) and digestion by cows (39%). H20 Farm states that their fodder is highly digestible, which will prevent a lot of the methane emissions associated with the constant chewing and belching from cows.
Hydroponic fodder production will revolutionise farming in ways that not only benefit the environment but animals and farmers as well. Given the overwhelming evidence that many alternatives to traditional farming methods are more efficient, sustainable, and rely on fewer chemicals, it would be extremely backwards — and downright nonsensical — if this way of farming isn’t widely adopted in the near future.
Permaculture involves using innovative methods to create sustainable ways of living. Its aim is to develop ecologically harmonious, efficient, and productive systems that can be used by anyone, anywhere. The potential of permaculture lies in how resources — water, food, energy, and shelter — are carefully used. It is possible to achieve a lot by using a lot less. Permaculture can be used in city flats, gardens, allotments, community spaces, farms, and industrial premises.
Permaculture gets its name from its original name: ‘Permanent Agriculture’. It is more than just a set of gardening techniques. It’s a design philosophy that focuses on creating human systems for human needs. But it does so by using natural elements and ecosystems as a form of inspiration.
Permaculture teaches people how to grow food, build houses, and set up communities, whilst minimising the impact on the environment at the same time. And a community in Portugal, called Tamera, is showing the world the huge potential of permaculture, and how it coincides with the goals of sustainability.
This peace research village has the goal of becoming:
a self-sufficient, sustainable and duplicable communitarian model for nonviolent cooperation and cohabitation between humans, animals, nature, and Creation for a future of peace for all.
Tamera is located in the Alentejo region of southwestern Portugal. Its permaculture project has also been pretty successful.
By using simple practices, such as digging swales (ditches) and creating water retention spaces, Tamera’s ecology experts have transformed an area that was close to desertification. And they claim that they can do this anywhere in the world (although I’m not sure how successful this would be in the polar regions).
Bernd Mueller, who established Tamera’s Global Ecology Institute, notes that when he came to the community in 2006 the trees were dying and the wells were drying out. In the summer the place looked like a desert, without vegetation. In the winter there was heavy rainfall, but most of the water was causing soil erosion and damaging the infrastructure, rather than being soaked up by the earth.
The aim of the permaculture project, then, was to retain all of the rainwater. So they built structures like swales, which fill with rainwater and slowly filter into the earth. Mueller highlights a principle in permaculture called the triple S — slow, spread, and sink. He said, “When you have flowing rainwater, something in your ecosystem is wrong. You have to slow it down, spread it over the land and let it sink.”
Mueller was surprised by the transformation. By February 2008, there was a creek going through the valley, which brought lush vegetation and animals, since wildlife responds immediately to a constant source of water.
The Tamera experiment has been presented to the EU because of the exciting prospect of transforming an arid region in Portugal into fertile land.
It is a great achievement that could be replicated in many other arid regions in the world. Indeed, the potential of permaculture is very reassuring in a time when agriculture and modern living is anything but sustainable. Mueller wants the community to be a model for the rest of the world. He has travelled the world to consult on water projects. And he has found that:
When you scale the ecological problems down to principles, it’s all due to the same mistakes. In all the cases I have seen all over the world, the key to ecosystem restoration is rainwater and vegetation management.
The great potential of permaculture is that it could possibly be applied in areas experiencing extreme drought or famine, such as South Sudan. The country has similar ecological conditions as Kenya, where Mueller says he has seen how effective this kind of permaculture can be.
Alternative protein production, aquaponics, hydroponics, vertical farming, and permaculture are just a handful of ways in which to tackle food insecurity. The reality is, however, that there are many, complex reasons why so many people are hungry in the world: natural disasters, drought, climate change, a lack of arable land, pests, military conflicts, the marginalisation of women, wealth inequality, corruption, and how political power is wielded. But many of these reasons are systemic problems too and, as with the way we grow food, they require systemic solutions.
Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on September 7, 2021.