Food security more complex issue than we often acknowledge

Too often the term global food security is used to justify our existence as farmers.

As an industry, we’ve named organizations, government departments and major marketing campaigns based around the term food security. What usually begins as frightening projections on global population growth urges us as farmers to produce more to feed a “growing global population.”

The problem is that our often overly simplistic definition of food security warrants deeper analysis.

Food security, by definition, is the measure of availability of food and individuals’ abilities to access it. Access to food is complicated, and dependent on many factors that most often stem from political instability. While biotechnology is an important driver of food security, it certainly is not the sole factor determining whether a country is food insecure or secure.

Countries can be food insecure even when supply exists. Canada, for example, is a country where food supply exists in abundance, which allows us to be the fifth largest exporter of agricultural and agrifood products in the world, yet more than four million Canadians are food insecure.

It turns out that the Canadian public is concerned about this. Before the 2019 federal election, an Angus Reid poll found that 60 percent of Canadian respondents identified food security, along with affordability as the top two agri-food issues of concern.

The assumption is that increased availability of food commodities increases food security. The reality is that there is currently enough macronutrients available to feed the global population, yet food insecurity exists with 11 percent of the global population declared food insecure.

Population growth drives increased demand, but global population growth projections might be more aggressive than necessary. Canada is one of many developed nations experiencing stabilization and even declining population in many provinces. For example, in Atlantic Canada more people are dying than being born annually, and most of our population is being sustained through immigration.

Similarly, two of Canada’s largest export markets — India and China — are experiencing population stabilization because of mass urbanization and an increase in women’s education, which are two factors that drastically reduce birth rates. The United Nations predicts that the Chinese population could decline by 300 million people this century as a result of the aging population and declining birth rates.

Food insecurity is most often a result of political or cultural instability, infrastructure challenges and economic instability. As the middle class continues to grow globally, globalization has resulted in improvements in infrastructure, especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia.

The Global International Food Security Assessment predicts that the percentage of people who are food insecure will decline in 2020. There are several reasons for this, but mainly it is because productivity — yield per unit of area — has increased in nearly every country across the globe with the exception of a few equatorial and sub-Saharan African countries.

Productivity is one of the main drivers of food security, and in the last 50 years agriculture productivity has increased at a greater rate than population growth. For example, corn yields in some sub-Saharan African countries are similar to North American yields in the 1940s.

Food security is a complex issue that is likely to be solved by gender parity, ageing demographic, climate change and political stability.

The challenge is that food security is far more complex than we admit to as an industry, and urging farmers to produce more to feed a growing global population causes us to appear somewhat naive and out of touch. As well, a market needs to exist in order for us to profit from increased yields.

As a grain farmer, I want to know who is going to buy my grain and what they are willing to pay — not hear philanthropic sentiments about solving world hunger. Perhaps it’s time we modernize the language around food security to reflect the reality of the situation. Another option is to focus our efforts on reducing food waste, one of the most significant culprits of food insecurity globally.

Katelyn Duncan, PAg, BSA, is a Saskatchewan farmer and agrologist.

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