Overcoming the environmental challenges that threaten our food supply.
By 2050, the global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion - an increase of 2 billion people in just 30 years.
This rapid estimated population growth has combined with the impacts of climate change. An increasingly unpredictable climate has intensified the difficulties faced by farmers as they struggle with decreased crop yields, redistribution of rainfall, increasing soil salinity and loss of farmland. As a result, the world is under more pressure than it has ever faced in its history.
How do we rise to this food security challenge, feeding almost 10 billion mouths with less resources and a changing climate?
What is food insecurity?
Food insecurity is defined as not having access to enough safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy, active life. However, it is not just quantity, access to quality, nutritious produce is fundamental to our life expectancy. Climate change also poses a real threat to our nutrition security. Increasing CO2 levels have been proven to reduce key crop nutrients, including zinc and iron.
Climate change could reduce crop yields by a further 30% by 2050;
putting 50 million more people at risk of undernourishment*.
How does climate change impact food security?
In the last 20 years, we have seen a geographical shift in climate patterns. Areas that previously received predictable rains are suddenly falling victim to prolonged periods of drought. Whereas, those who saw frequent drought have been hit by flash flooding and landslides.
Precipitation redistribution, increasing temperatures and evaporation along with the variability in the timing of rains are understandably significant issues for farming communities. However, the impacts do not stop there.
Once fertile soils are becoming saline-rich and unproductive as rising sea levels cause salt-water penetration. There is far less water available for irrigation as rivers and reservoirs are no longer replenished sufficiently. Farmers have little option but to irrigate with high salinity water and increase fertilizer use, causing further problems long-term – ultimately this leads to the loss of more agricultural land. Further land for food production is also being lost as farmers diversify, turning their land over to bio-fuel crops to ensure their survival.
What are the secondary impacts of food and nutrition security?
Where previously perfect growing conditions existed, farmers are losing their livelihoods and entire communities are in decline. Negative migration rapidly increases urbanisation, placing intense pressure on services and the job market.
This negative spiral can bring regional economic decline, increased poverty, malnutrition and even famine. Research by the Global Food Security Programme estimated that climate change could decrease a regions annual GDP by as much as 11%. Compare this to the vast economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic when the ONS reported a 9.9% fall in the UK’s GDP.
Protecting the world’s smallholdings.
Smallholdings account for 90% of the world’s farms, supplying the majority of our produce. There are approximately 570 million of these small farms worldwide, mainly in Africa and Asia. With just two hectares of land or less, they are more susceptible to changes in the seasonal climate, even one poor or lost season, can mean the difference between struggling and the farm failing.
Why is food and nutrition security a problem?
If you live in a high-income country, you may wonder how this affects you - production is in line with demand and the supermarket shelves are full. With the Ethiopian and Sudan famines in recent memory, you could be forgiven for thinking that malnutrition is something that happens elsewhere. It’s always true that the poorest are hardest hit, but the effects of the food security crisis are certainly felt closer to home.
Drought doesn’t just affect Africa. When large-scale wheat exporters, such as Russia experience drought, it affects the commodities price, globally. In 2019, low rainfall resulted in an Australian wheat yield, 47% lower than average. The unprecedented bushfire season that followed only increased food security issues with an estimated 10 million hectares of land lost along with over 2% of the continents total livestock population.
The UK, the world’s sixth richest country, has 8.4 million people living in food poverty+, one of the highest rates in Europe. It is important to note that malnutrition can mean poor nutrition, not only under nutrition. In fact, globally, 1 in 3 people suffer from a form of malnutrition – this can include obesity.
What can we do to solve the food security crisis?
Experts say that we urgently require a combination of approaches to resolve the varied range of ecological and socio-economic issues surrounding food insecurity.
The Global Commissions Report, Adapt Now, calls for governments, development agencies, NGO’s and the private sector to unite; helping smallholder farmers to adapt to climate change with sustainable initiatives. A region cannot be reliant on nature as it once did – this understanding must drive policy reform to create agricultural stability within a country.
50% of the world’s farmers are women, yet gender inequality prevents them from receiving the same land rights, resources and access to climate-smart agricultural technology.
With equal rights, female farmers could improve yields by up to 30%; reducing world hunger by 12-17%.
Improve soil quality and water management to boost crop yields.
Damaging practices such as over-cultivation and excessive use of fertilizers has resulted in 69% of the world’s agriculture soil becoming degraded** With less irrigation water available, high salinity levels have become one of the biggest factors limiting crop production.
However, we can create a sustainable future. By combining technology, farming best practice and education, we can increase yields, improve product quality and recover the soil.
Water technology solutions.
Global demand for water is projected to rise by between 20-30% by 2050. With less available, sustainable treatment for water is one innovative solution.
An agricultural innovation, this pioneering technology changes the structure of the water molecules, improving the quality of irrigation water by reducing the presence of larger salt crystals. This means that farmers can use the available saline water for crop irrigation without damaging their soil, reducing productivity or damaging their expensive irrigation equipment.
The plants absorb more water and retain more minerals, reducing the need for fertilizers. This creates healthier plants that grow faster and produce higher yields. What’s more, the treated water is proven to break down salt crusts within agricultural soil, repairing the damage caused by previous irrigation salinity.
Increase diversity of crop varieties.
In advanced countries, crop scientists have begun investing in agriculture crop protection with research and development into climate resistant crops that tolerate heat, drought and disease. Advancements are also being made in methods to slow the ripening of fruit and vegetables to improve shelf life.
We can also use a greater variety of staples, including less water demanding rice varieties. In an interview with Time Magazine, Richard Deverell, Director at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens points out that there are over 5,500 edible plants globally, yet we have become reliant on a very small number of crops. Just 12 varieties make up 75% of our diet.
50% of all human calories come from just three plants – maize, wheat and rice^.
Through education, we can also drive consumer behavioural change, reducing food waste and returning to more seasonal, locally grown produce.
These four solutions are by no means exhaustive. However, by combining agricultural technologies, policy reform and behavioural change, we can begin to respond appropriately to the global food and nutrition security challenge and by 2050, feed almost 10 billion people with less resource.
About the author
CEO & Managing Director ALVÁTECH Water Revolution. With over 25 years' experience in the innovation and technology industry, Zac is passionate about progressing pioneering water management technologies that help to drive social change.
Using his career to create a green legacy, he is focused upon the research, development and global distribution of sustainable technological solutions that help combat the issues presented by climate change and the increasing global population.
Zac and his team work tirelessly and never lose sight of agricultural communities and the problems they face, which ALVÁTECH exists to solve.