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World races to feed growing population

In flood-hit fields in the Philippines, farmers are testing a new variety of rice that can survive submerged for more than two weeks.

In Nairobi’s Kibera slum, poor urban families are turning around their diets and incomes just by learning to grow vegetables in sack gardens outside their doors.

Lilian Kayes gets ready to clean her cooking utensils outside her house in Kibera in Nairobi. She and other residents in the urban slum are staving off hunger and lifting their incomes by growing food in sack gardens on their doorsteps. Photo: AlertNet. Credit: REUTERS

And in India, a push to help marginalised rural communities gain title to their land is significantly decreasing hunger.

These are just a few of the innovations and initiatives that experts say will be critical if the world is to feed itself over coming decades as the population soars, cities sprawl and climate change takes its toll.

By 2050, the planet will need at least 70 percent more food than it does today to meet both an expected rise in population to 9 billion from 7 billion and changing appetites as many poor people grow richer, experts say.

“Can we feed a world of 9 billion? I would say the answer is yes,” said Robert Watson, the chief scientific adviser to Britain’s Department of Environment and Rural Affairs and a former chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But doing so would require fundamental changes to unsustainable but well-entrenched policies and practices, from eating so much meat to spending trillions on agriculture and fuel subsidies, he said.

In the meantime, many hunger fighters say the answer lies in clever alterations to the way food is planted, watered, harvested, stored, transported, sold, owned and shared.

Many of those changes are already being tested in the world’s farms and fields, in laboratories and government offices, in factories and markets. Some are even speaking of the beginnings of a 21st century food revolution.

Unlike the last century’s agricultural “Green Revolution”, which dramatically boosted world food production with new high-yielding crop varieties and more irrigation, this revolution must rely on myriad “green bullets” to tackle hunger.

They range from persuading farmers in Africa’s drought zones to switch from water-hungry rice to hardier crops such as sorghum or millet, to helping them build pest-proof grain silos that allow food to be stored longer or sold when prices are higher. With 70 percent of the world’s people expected to live in cities by 2050, finding ways to help city dwellers grow food in small urban plots or roof gardens is a major focus.

In California’s East Palo Alto, for instance, older inner-city residents are learning growing techniques for the first time and producing food for themselves and a neighbourhood market.

Other urban areas are using vertical hydroponic gardens on the edge of skyscrapers.

Women – who grow at least 40 percent of food in Africa and Asia – will need better land rights and access to information, something being made much easier by cellphone technology, experts say.

Rural women in India’s Andhra Pradesh state now get advance drought warnings via the internet and cellphones to switch to more drought-tolerant crops – a move that has saved harvests and helped stem the usual wave of migration to cities in times of drought.

Changing farming practices by using water-conserving drip irrigation or planting crops amid fertilising trees, as is now happening throughout Africa, will also be key.

So will cutting the at least 30 percent of the world’s food supply eaten by pests, spoiled on the way to market or thrown away unused from plates and supermarkets.

Getting supermarkets to not offer two-for-one specials would be a start, some anti-hunger activists say, as would improving roads in regions such as south Asia and Africa where transport delays mean produce often rots on the way to market.

Solutions to the threat of worsening hunger will vary by region, by country, sometimes even from one farm or village or apartment building to the next, experts say. Not all ideas will succeed, and scaling up those that work as quickly as possible will be essential.

In a world where about 900 million people already go hungry, curbing surging consumption in rich nations and those getting rich, especially India and China, will be particularly important, experts say.

“If we look at the graph of human consumption, that’s the one to worry about,” Oxfam Great Britain campaigns and policy director Phil Bloomer said. “That is a graph that should strike panic.”

Persuading rich people to eat less meat and fewer milk products, which take a lot of grain to produce, would go a long way toward curbing ever-rising demand for grain.

Many innovations focus on easing the adverse effects of climate change on food production. While warmer weather and growing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could spur plant growth and food production in some regions, many more regions are expected to see worsening losses from droughts, floods, storms, rising sea levels and higher temperatures.

“It used to be there was an extreme weather event here or there but we knew that in a year or so things would go back to normal,” food security and sustainability expert and Earth Policy Institute president Lester Brown said. “Now there is no normal to go back to.”

That is why scientists from Bangladesh to Tanzania are developing new resilient varieties of maize, wheat, rice and other crops that can survive underwater, or with very little rain, or even both extremes in the same season, and still produce a reliable crop. – AlertNet

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