F9B: The Illustrated Series


Hello, my name is Evan Fraser and I work at the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada. Mostly, what I do is to try and understand one of the biggest issues facing our world over the next 50 years … how can we feed 9 billion people? 

To start, let’s consider two images. The first shows us how much food you could buy for $1 on a market in the African nation of Zambia in 2008.  The second shows us how much you could buy on the same market for $1 in 2009.  What happened in between was skyrocketing food prices, a crisis that has thrown tens, maybe even hundreds, of millions into poverty.  What’s more, the victims haven’t suffered quietly.  They’ve rioted, smashed markets and toppled governments.  Remember the revolutions that swept the Middle East in 2011?  They all began with people in streets, upset over the price of food.

What’s more, many of the world’s top agricultural experts believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Unless we figure out new strategies to deal with global food security,  we may be entering a new and dangerous phase of human history where food, water, and energy shortages threaten not only worse poverty but also civic unrest and international conflict.

There are a number of reasons for this alarm.  The first reason is that in most years we produce only just enough food to cover our uses.  In fact, in six of the last eleven years we actually consumed slightly more food than we produced and the buffer we take from one year to the next has been steadily falling.  So our system already seems pretty fragile.

But it’s when we look into the future that things grow very dire indeed. Rising populations and our rich diets that take a lot more resources to produce than they used to are driving our demand for food up and scientists figure we’ll need 50% more food by 2050.  But producing this food is going to be hard. This is because the rising demand is coming precisely at the same time as high energy prices and climate change are making food harder and more expensive to produce.

But, hidden in these grim statistics is a four part blueprint we need to follow. But since each of these strategies is extremely controversial, each requires careful analysis.

The first strategy is science and technology.  Today, a major scientific hurdle is to develop technologies that will help farmers reach their potential in terms of the amount of food they produce.  Some scientists figure that we could easily boost production by 50% just by deploying currently available technologies.  This is especially important in regions like sub Saharan Africa where many farmers only produce about 20% of what they could due to a lack of good quality seeds, fertilizer, and better equipment.  But it’s not as if we can take the seeds and equipment that seem to work on North American farms and simply give them away to African farmers.  This doesn’t work because African soils, cultures, and communities are totally different than in North America or Europe.  So, scientists must partner with farmers to develop locally appropriate solutions to local challenges.

But just using science and technology isn’t enough.  And this is where the second strategy comes in – we must do a better job at distributing the food we’ve got. To develop this strategy, we need to consider an uncomfortable truth about today’s food system: if you take all the food on the planet, and divide it equally by all the people on the planet, there is plenty: about 2700 calories per person per day and 75 grams of protein per person per day. That’s more than enough.  But because we feed a lot of our food to animals, or turn corn into ethanol, or simply waste vast amounts (maybe 20% – 50% of the world’s food is wasted), or because the people who need the food are too poor to afford it, hunger abounds. So we need to establish ways of making sure that less food is wasted and the food we do have is better distributed. One way of doing this is through ensuring international aid organizations have better access to food stores that can be used as short-term food aid in times of crisis.

Third, if we want to avoid a hungry future, we need to make sure that we keep a healthy population of farms and farmers around our cities.  This means that we need to support local food systems that are important because they stand as a buffer between individual consumers and problems that might occur in global markets.  Even if local food systems do not feed all of us all the time, they are a critical line of defence against hunger.

Fourth none of this will be possible without stronger regulation and pro-active governmental policy.  I was confronted with the need for better regulation while on a recent tour of a feedlot that was licensed to hold 100,000 cows. There, I saw a 410,000 ton pile of manure – that’s the weight of about 35,000 elephants. It was a sad reminder of the need for governments to get serious about promoting more sustainable farming.

Of course, each of these four strategies has its drawbacks. Critics of technology and markets argue that new technologies inevitably seem to enrich corporations more than helping humanity or the environment.  Anti-regulation voices argue that all governments ever do is tie farmers in red tape and stifle innovation. Arguments for more equitable food redistribution cause some to mutter about the effect of “big brother” forcing us all to eat a uniform diet. But most daunting, perhaps, is the argument that, with a world population poised to reach 9 billion by mid-century, there will never be a way for modern communities to feed themselves by means of local, small farms. Our cities are simply too big, our demands too great, to be able to feed ourselves without relying on extremely intensive farms.

But luckily, this isn’t a lost cause.  Take southern Africa in 1992.  That year, it suffered the worst drought in 100 years.  Harvests shrank by a half, food stockpiles disappeared and 17-20 million people almost starved. Yet, apart from in war-torn Mozambique, there was no real crisis and the story of how southern Africa overcame the drought is a modern parable for how to feed 9 billion humans.  It was the famine that wasn’t.  And the reasons for this are that Africans adopted the four strategies proposed here.  First, before the emergency, local plant-breeding programs introduced drought-resistant varieties of the crops that small scale farmers traditionally cultivated. This meant people had some food to fall back on when their main crops failed.  Also, “famine early warning systems” used up-to-date data and weather forecasts to alert officials to the problem months in advance. Meanwhile, international donors adopted proactive policies like forgiving loans.  They also contributed to food storage centres close to vulnerable communities and so food prices stayed level. As such, local production systems, on which poorer communities depend, bounced back quickly.

The key lesson from southern Africa in 1992 is that while all the criticisms have their points, they aren’t applicable universally, and not across the entire complex landscape of the 21st-century food system. To effectively tackle the challenges of feeding the future, the most sensible approach is to imagine these four types of solutions as components of a balanced investment portfolio – one that’s resilient enough to weather economic storms, is still able to provide strong year over years returns, and is secure against fraud and theft.

Think of new agricultural technologies as similar to high-octane IT stocks—they’re an important part of a profitable investment strategy, but an overreliance on them could cost you your shirt if the market turns against you. Likewise, local food systems are similar to more modest, rainy-day investments. They can’t be relied upon to feed everyone all the time, but they’re a vital buffer between consumers and the dangerous swings of the international markets. And, of course, every sound portfolio includes a cash reserve in case of emergencies; hence the need for more mechanisms to store and distribute food in times of crisis.  Lastly, one of the lessons of the present economic crisis is that, left unregulated, financial institutions behave badly. In the same way, we need a robust legal framework to restrain agriculture from destroying the environment.

The 1992 southern African drought passed without excessive hardship, and the agricultural cycle trundled onwards. Historically, it always has. One of the few Old Testament stories to have a happy ending was the tale of Joseph and the Pharaoh’s Dream. The story recounts how the Pharaoh dreamt that seven fat cows emerged from the Nile, followed by seven thin cows who followed them and gobbled the fat ones up. The Pharaoh ended up listening to Joseph, a prisoner in his dungeons, for the correct interpretation. Joseph told him that the seven fat cows were a good weather report, signifying seven rich years. They would be followed by seven dry years of no rainfall whatsoever. To save Egypt from the famine, Joseph advised the Pharaoh to tax his farms, store grain in silos and prepare for the rough times ahead. Pharaoh took this advice to heart, and Egypt was saved.

Today, stopping the Global Food Crisis may seem like an impossible task.  The stakes could not be higher.  If we don’t change how the world produces and distributes its food then the suffering and violence of the past few years will be repeated – but a thousand times worse.   But luckily, today, we have climate and demographic modeling software that are far more reliable than waiting for God to send a dream to a monarch. These models are quite clear:  the years 2050-80 are probably not going to be as productive as the ones between 1950-80.  But this doesn’t necessarily mean disaster. We can avoid this nightmare and replace it with a vision of a world where no one needs to starve.  We have the solutions – all we need now is the will to act on them.

What can you do to help?  First, go to our website. There’s a more information about each of the four strategies, and things you can do to make a difference locally and internationally.  We’ll release an in-depth video and associated campaign for each of the four strategies over the next year, but we need to know which one you’re most interested in. So go to www.feedingninebillion.com and vote on your favourite topic. Then share this on twitter and facebook, send it to your friends, your colleagues, your neighbours, your families and get them to do the same. Our funding will flow if we have enough demand and votes to make the next videos.

Until then, thanks for watching, and good luck.

[*Note: A huge thanks to everyone who followed and liked our videos! Thanks to your support, we have been able to create an entire series of videos on this topic! Watch them all here!]