Food production doesn’t jibe with food security

We have just celebrated Thanksgiving, a time to recognize and appreciate the bounty that nature and human effort have provided to feed our bodies and spirits. In Canada, there is an abundance of food.

Indeed, worldwide there is a surplus of the major crops — wheat, corn and soybeans — that depresses crop prices, limits farm incomes and stresses the agricultural economy.

This week we have a special report produced by the Reuters News Agency that examines factors that led to the grain glut.

However, last month the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization published its annual report on the state of global food security, noting that after a decade of declines, the number of chronically undernourished people increased in 2016 to 815 million from 777 million in 2015.

Some might wonder how these two situations can co-exist, but for a long time it has been clear that hunger is mostly caused by poverty, corruption, political chaos and war rather than by a lack of food.

The Reuters story notes how improving crop production technology is raising yields, shortening the days to maturity, producing more hardy crops and helping to expand the regions where high yield corn and soybeans can be grown.

With these improvements there is less danger that drought or flood in a particular region will significantly reduce world crop production.

Will ample grain supply become the norm? It is not a stretch. Except for a few years in the late 2000s, global grain supply has been ample since the early 1990s.

The large supply of inexpensive grain and improving political stability around the world helped to reduce levels of chronic undernourishment but also contributed to an alarming rise in obesity rates.

The FAO notes that there is a 25-year history of reduced hunger in countries that enjoy peace and stability.

A recent increase in conflict, violence and fragility in government, notably in sub-Saharan Africa and Syria, are key to the recent expansion of hunger. People, many of them farmers, get displaced in conflict zones. Crops aren’t harvested and weak governments can’t deliver aid, protect humanitarian efforts or react to natural disasters.

So international efforts to build peace and prevent conflict will likely have a greater impact in reducing hunger than any focus on increasing food production.

Too often companies or politicians point to some agricultural product or policy and argue it is necessary to “feed a hungry world.” False perceptions are raised that we are on an edge, staring down at the prospect of global hunger arising from population and income growth.

The reality is we mostly know how to produce enough food for today and for tomorrow. We just need to keep on track and to reduce the environmental footprint of production.

We need to recognize that the climate is becoming more volatile, which means more resilience will be needed in seed genetics and cropping and livestock systems.

We need to educate the public about genetic modification and its safety in a regulated environment.

We need to concentrate production on appropriate land and preserve natural areas.

With that, and greater peace, we will all be able to celebrate a happy Thanksgiving.

Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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