Food security: How much time do we have? This was a question raised at the international congress and exhibition of the SA Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST) being held at the CSIR in Pretoria this week.
Herman Koëter, a scientist and academic, now managing director of the Orange House Partnership* in Belgium, said it was possible to ensure a sustainable food supply for humanity but a fundamental rethink was needed.
“In the world today 923 million poor people go hungry and 3.1 billion people – almost half the world’s population – live on less than R25 a day,” Koëter said.
“The era of plenty of food for some parts of the world and hardly enough to survive for other parts has to end. This is possible within the next 10-20 years if developing countries and emerging economies learn from the mistakes and failures of Europe and North America and new technologies in the food sector become available, not necessarily requiring intensive farming or intensive agriculture.
“However, the key to and prerequisite for success will be two-fold: a fundamental shift in what today is seen as the most desirable food, namely animal protein, and changing from up-scaling single food production to small-scale local and diversified food production.”
Koëter said world food demand could double by 2050, half from population growth and half from economic growth in low-income countries.
“The World Bank estimates that the number of people in developing countries living in households with incomes above R150 000 a year will rise from 352 million in 2000 to 2.1 billion by 2030. How many presently low-income consumers are lifted out of poverty will be the most important determinant of the future global demand for food,” he said.
“For most of the past decade we have been consuming more food than farmers have been producing. In 2007 carry-over stocks fell to 61 days of global food consumption; 35 percent of the world’s grain is used to feed livestock instead of people and there is now more competition for crops as some are being used for biofuel.”
For example, he said, Bangladesh’s total number of starving people has reached 35 million, while the price of rice has nearly doubled over the past two years. In the Philippines even record harvests of rice are unable to support the population’s needs; China cannot grow enough grain to feed its pigs and the price of wheat and corn have rocketed.
“Making biofuels creates competition for land and water and will increase food prices. If biofuels have to be made they should be limited to non-food crops like algae or seaweeds, or recycled waste from for instance coffee grounds.”
Sugar cane is particularly efficient to produce as a biofuel, he said.
Koëter said today’s major protein source in Western societies is meat. However, converting edible plants via animals into proteins is an inefficient, labour-intensive process, affecting the environment, fresh water supply and energy sources.
In a lifetime, one person eats about 680 chickens, 35 pigs, 35 rabbits, seven turkeys, five cows, three goats, 20 000kg of dairy products, 15 000 eggs and 275kg of fish.
It would be far more sustainable to reduce the use of animals and invest in plants as a protein source. This would put less pressure on the environment and contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and save water.
“There are serious constraints on the world’s ability to increase agricultural production,” Koëter said.
Of the world’s land, 40 percent is too dry, 21 percent too wet, 21 percent too cold, 6 percent in too-rough terrain and 2 percent has unsuitable soils. There is, at most, 12 percent more arable land available that isn’t presently forested or subject to erosion or desertification. The area of land in farm production could be doubled but only by massive destruction of forests and loss of wildlife habitat, biodiversity and carbon sequestration capacity. The only environmentally sustainable alternative is to double productivity on the fertile, non-erodible soils already in crop production.
The route to take would be to decrease consumption of meat and other animal products and develop high-quality meat-replacing products.
Even if the one billion richest people reduced their meat consumption by 50 percent, this would not come near to compensating for the remaining six billion people when they start doubling or tripling their meat consumption as soon as they are financially able to afford meat, he said.
Biotechnology also opens new frontiers in food production.
Koëter said it could improve the nutritional content of grains and develop new plant varieties that could grow on arid land, in brackish soils and otherwise useless substrates and producing more and different nutrients.
“In summary: food security means ensuring a sustainable environment by reconsidering crops for biofuel; focusing on the most efficient nutrient sources (and diversify), and maintaining an innovative approach to food production,” he said.
* The Orange House Partnership is a non-profit organisation providing scientific expertise and training food and chemical safety and management to developing countries and emerging economies around the world, including South Africa. - Pretoria News