Oftentimes elected officials and policymakers don’t talk about the food system in a serious way, let alone address the complex challenges involved with global food security.
Speaking at the Oilseed & Grain Trade Summit 2014, James C. Borel, executive vice president, DuPont, pointed this out with a humorous example. “The story goes that President John F. Kennedy once told his principal agricultural policy advisor, ‘I don’t want to hear about agriculture from anybody but you. And I don’t want to hear about it from you either.’"
While agricultural policy – especially as it relates to food security – has a much higher public profile than in the 1960s, it still takes a backseat to many other issues when it should be central to political agenda.
“Say ‘feed the world,’ and everybody seems to care about the topic,” Borel continued, but effective action to address the problem can be illusive.
“No one favors hunger,” he said, “but beyond a universal agreement that no mother should ever have to hear her children cry from hunger, there is little general understanding about what can be done and needs to be done to end hunger.”
Food insecurity is real and widespread
Notwithstanding the progress being made in fighting hunger, food security remains a significant challenge.
“Even in the United States, in the last year, it is estimated that one in seven people experienced some degree of food insecurity,” Borel noted.
So, why are so many people hungry? “The fact is the answer is very complex and it is not easily solved,” he said. “What we do know is that the world lacks a cohesive food system that addresses both immediate food aid and long-term sustainable food supplies including agricultural development.”
Rhetoric versus governmental policy
“I often hear the saying, ‘Farmers feed the world,’” he said. “But I often ask whether our trade policies are hindering or fostering their productivity and agricultural development to meet this great challenge. We should not expect farmers to do this alone.”
Answers for greater food security
Borel advocated a number of policies to help address the challenge of feeding a world population, which is growing at a dizzying rate:
>> Eliminate barriers to food trade
It’s estimated that up to 85 percent of food never crosses an international border, which is possibly an indication that food is not getting to where it is needed around the world.
“Imagine for a minute the greater ability to feed people if the percentage of food that moves across borders went from 15 percent to 50 percent,” Borel prompted listeners. “That’s not a prediction. But I would ask you to give it some serious thought to what would need to be in place to be able to move food across borders at that magnitude. What supporting policies would have to be in place? What implications would we face in this realignment of the global food system? What would it take to create a globally integrated food system that is efficient, transparent and barrier free? And could we more sustainably feed the world if there were no barriers in those trade arenas?
“Even after accelerating productivity and increasing production, the greater amounts of food still need to move affordably and sustainably to consumers in large population centers across borders,” he said.
“Food needs to be grown locally where possible,” he continued, “but keep in mind that we don’t live in a perfectly ordered world. We have some spots on the planet – like Iowa where I came from – that are agriculturally productive and sparsely populated. There are other areas of very high population where the soil is not as rich. As the world becomes richer and more urbanized, greater amounts of food must move affordably and sustainably to consumers in the large population centers.”
Borel asked, “Should food by international agreement be exempted from import and export controls? Could food be linked by international protocol? For example, the Geneva Convention explicitly recognizes the right to water. I suggest that food be granted some kind of similar status.”
>> Increase food’s shelf life and reduce waste
Over a third of the food in the world goes to waste. “We have to find ways to protect food and increase its safety and extend its shelf life. It is going to require longer shelf life of foods that need to go farther to reach their markets,” he said.
>> Remove trade-related barriers to innovation
Borel continued: “We look to farmers to feed the world. And farmers must have access to technology, innovative science, and capacity to grow and meet the challenge, no matter what part of the world they live in. Supporting local production means supporting local farmers, especially small, local farmers.
“At a time when advances in biotechnology are opening up new vistas of improved crops and greater yield, review-to-approval times are actually lengthening. It is taking longer to bring new and better food to the market. Just the opposite of what we should be experiencing in a world that is committed to ending hunger.
“We need a systematic global approach to fast track new crops, new food and new food technology.
Bringing food to a starving person is every bit as important as bringing medicine to the sick.
“Efforts to remove barriers to innovation need to include enhancing and enforcing trade agreements and harmonizing regulatory frameworks around the introduction of plant varieties,” he said.
>> Increase governmental investment in agricultural development
There’s a shortfall in the resources needed to increase agricultural productivity in many world regions, Borel noted. Some estimates put the shortfall at $79 billion. “What would happen if governments invested $100 billion in agricultural development?” he asked.
He pointed to the 2003 Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, in which members of the African Union pledged to invest at least 10 percent of their national budgets in agricultural development. Only eight of those countries have reached their targets.
>> Educate the public about the solutions to food insecurity
Borel stated: “While we work to advance science to address these food security challenges, we need to ensure that we bring society along with us.
“We are no longer producing food for the world in the back forty; we are producing under the spotlight of Twitter and YouTube and blogs.
“The public is hungry for more information about how their food is produced and where it comes from, and we need to enhance biotechnology acceptance. We need to address food versus fuel concerns. We need to build an understanding and support for modern agricultural practices.”
Food security challenges ahead
One way to more fully grasp the food security challenge ahead is by recognizing its scale. “We are going to have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have produced in the last 10,000. Clearly we need to increase agricultural productivity everywhere,” Borel said.
“Political instability and the challenge of getting tools and technology to local farmers appear to be hindering food security progress in many regions. And for a number of years, the world has grown more than enough food to feed the entire population. FAO estimated that the world was producing enough food to provide every human being 2,700 calories per day. And if you take all the food that farmers are producing across the world right now, they are producing by some estimates more than twice the minimum nutritional need,” he concluded.
As the world becomes richer and more urbanized, greater amounts of food must move affordably and sustainably to consumers in the large population centers of the world.
“It has become abundantly clear how important, how critical, how interconnected and how vulnerable the world food system is,” he said.