Sustaining the road from farm to fork

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One of the subjects undoubtedly set firmly on the agenda of the current 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris – as it was at the COP20 in Lima – is food security. Because when it comes to ensuring that enough good quality, varied and reasonably-priced nutrition is produced for and reaches everyone on the planet, we humans are struggling to build a long-term, sustainable road.

It is a struggle set to become fiercely sharper over the coming decades, and not only because of the shrinkage of available arable land and water resources due to climate change. There will also be many more mouths to feed. By 2050 – that’s less than two generations down the line – the world will have an additional 2.4 billion people, over 30% more than now.

And over the same time-span, a growing proportion of the world’s population will be urban dwellers. The global urban population is expected to increase by 84% to 6.3 billion by 2050 – the size of the world’s total population in 2004. Virtually all the world’s population growth will be concentrated in the urban areas of less developed regions, where numbers are projected to more than double by 2050. Over the same period, the rural (food-producing) population in those regions is expected to shrink.

Urbanisation brings major changes in demand for agricultural products both from rising populations and from changes in their diets and demands. This in turn changes how demands are met and which farmers, corporations, local and national economies benefit (and which ones lose out). It can also pose significant challenges for urban and rural food security.

To predict such changes for each nation is difficult, because of uncertainties as to how much and where urban populations will grow. Nations with successful economies and rapid urbanisation are likely to see rising demand for meat, dairy products, vegetable oils and ‘luxury’ foods, which implies more energy-intensive production and, very often, more imports.

Urbanisation is also associated with dietary shifts towards more processed and pre-prepared foods, partly in response to long working hours and, for many urban dwellers, less physical activity. There are already signs of what this dietary and lifestyle shift implies. By 2030 – in less than one generation – over 3.2 billion people in the world will be overweight or obese if current trends continue. Which seems ironic when talking about basic food security.

Increasing urbanisation is also likely to mean a growing role for supermarkets and transnational corporations in food sales. This implies changes all along the food chain, including the favouring of larger and often non-local agricultural producers and altered food distribution and marketing systems. Employment within the food system would thus also shift, with fewer people working in agriculture and more working in transport, wholesaling, retailing, food processing and vending.

India is without doubt the largest-population country to attempt to improve its people’s access to adequate nutrition. The government passed the National Food Security Act (2013), “to provide for food and nutritional security […] by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity [..]”. The legislation – billed as the largest welfare scheme in the history of the world, committed to ensuring 800 million people get at least a minimum daily level of food.

Reacting to widespread criticism of the Act by India’s elite, journalist Shoma Chaudhury said: “The Food Security Bill is not a spend; it is an investment, crucial for India’s future and growth.” She argues that the country’s economic planners and corporates have long held up India’s “demographic dividend” — its millions of young people, second only to China — as one of the major keys to its buoyant economy. By not investing in this ‘dividend’, almost half of India’s children suffer from severe malnutrition, at levels worse than in sub-Saharan Africa. Chaudhury says: “We are nurturing literally hundreds of millions of Indians who are bursting with aspiration but who have no tools to satisfy them. How can they possibly become productive members of the country’s economy until they have access to a basic platform of human dignity?” Therein lies the nub of the investment rationale around food security, as addressed for example by BNP Paribas Asset Management’ ‘smart food’ and human development investment strategies.

In simplistic terms, all the relevant data suggest that there will be many more food consumers and far fewer food producers. Yet that hides the fact that the challenge of establishing sustainable food systems (According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “a sustainable food system (SFS) is [one] that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised”). in the face of climate change, urbanisation and bigger populations is enormous and complex. For example, as in India’s case, merely imposing a top-down legal requirement to feed people is not enough. Visiting some of the country’s most forsaken landscapes, Shoma Chaudhury found destitute, bone-thin families staring at their pink and white ration cards with utter bewilderment. The first, a ‘below poverty line’ card, entitles them to rice, wheat and some sugar. The second, an ‘above poverty line’ card, only gets them some kerosene oil. Often, they got neither. “But what confused them the most was how one neighbour — living in exactly the same set of circumstances — had been picked for the pink card, and yet others had been cursed with the white. [And] there were dozens of families who had no card at all,” said Chaudhury.

It’s a disturbing illustration of the reality that sustainable food systems cannot succeed without full and continuing cooperation between governments at all levels – international, national and regional – with the agrarian, food processing, distribution, retail and waste management industries, as well as relevant science and technology companies and humanitarian organisations. How to achieve such cooperation will be a key talking point at COP21.

roibu /

Alexandre Jeanblanc

Investment Specialist, SRI

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