Stuart Clark, senior policy adviser at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, says spoilage and waste must fall to maintain food stability.
The water bucket that is our global food supply is nearly empty.
Water leaks out through holes labelled food, animal feed and biofuel. Farmers used to be able to keep it full, but these days it is beginning to head toward empty. What can be done to restore the balance?
One way is through increased agricultural production – new farm machinery, new seeds, new types of fertilizers and more irrigation. The challenge is to increase production in a way that is less sensitive to increasingly unpredictable weather, yet avoids contributing further to climate change.
Canadian farmers have made considerable progress in the last two decades through no-till cropping. Some African farmers have gone one step further by practicing what is called conservation agriculture, a way of applying compost and fertilizers only to the places where the seeds are planted and then covering fields with a blanket of grass or leaves to retain moisture and reduce erosion.
Despite these positive developments, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization foresees a slowing of production increases because of increasing shortages of water for agriculture, the limited productive capacity of expanded farmland and the expected effects of climate change on crop yields.
We must also begin to look at how we use our crops and how we can slow their growing consumption.
First up is how to deal with growing meat consumption.
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) reports that global animal feed demands will double by 2030 because of rising world demand for meat and dairy products.
In many parts of the world, young children in particular require more meat and dairy products, but in rich countries meat consumption is already far above the levels of good nutrition. The only way to tackle this is for more people in rich countries to eat less meat. This may be hard to implement except through rising prices.
Next is biofuel.
The current U.S. requirement of 10 percent ethanol in all gasoline is due to be raised to 15 percent. There are new technologies that have the potential to use non-food raw materials, which could take some of the pressure off the supply of corn.
The biggest hole in the bucket will continue to be food uses.
It is estimated that as much as 40 percent of the food grown in developing countries is lost after it leaves the fields. This loss occurs mostly during storage and transport. Even modest improvements in infrastructure could lead to a bountiful second “hidden harvest.”
There is enormous loss of food in Canada, too, but it doesn’t occur in the food storage and distribution systems. Rather, it is the waste of food in our shops and homes – food that is uneaten and thrown away. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but some research shows that North Americans waste 50 percent more food than Europeans.
There are no government policies that will affect whether you throw out the leftover pizza. Perhaps increasing food prices will be the key to changing these behaviours.
We have entered a new world for our food supply. It is far less predictable and less reliable than the old one. We need new, more extensive food stocks to even out the bumps in production.
Agricultural production must increase, particularly in developing countries where the food and farm jobs are really needed. But it is on the consumption side that we must really start to pay attention. We and our governments must start making changes so that food doesn’t become the new engine of global discontent.