Sustainable agriculture and food security

With a population projected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050, feeding the world through sustainable agriculture is vital. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), this growth will require global agriculture to increase in volume by 60% from 2005-07. So how can we do it?

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Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable Agricultural Development is defined by the FAO as “agricultural development that contributes to improving resource efficiency, strengthening resilience and securing social equity/responsibility of agriculture and food systems in order to ensure food security and nutrition for all, now and in the future”. This extends to food availability, access, utilisation and stability. Some predictions suggest the challenge of meeting rising demand for food will not be one of quantity, but of distribution and access.

Somewhat paradoxically, most of the world’s hungry are actually smallholder farmers themselves. Three quarters of poor people in developing countries live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture for income and livelihoods.

Adequate food has now been declared as a human right, and is central to Sustainable Development Goal 2 to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.

Food security involves the triple burden:

  1. Malnutrition – as measured by dietary energy intake, and estimated to affect 792 million people worldwide;
  2. Micronutrient deficiencies – particularly iron, vitamin A, iodine and zinc, which is estimated to affect two billion people;
  3. Overnutrition – which now affects more people than malnutrition!

Sustainable agriculture has been improved on a scientific level through the Green Revolution, with developments in high-yielding varieties (including drought resistant crops), improved irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides.  Alongside these benefits, the movement has also been met with a number of challenges, including biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, social inequalities, changing land prices, and the necessary skills not being transferred to the farmers themselves. This means an integrated approach is needed between farmers, consumers, governments, scientists and communities.

But the problem isn’t just quantity of food, but quality. On top of an adequate calorie intake, crop diversification is necessary to ensure proper nutrition, and micronutrient intake. This recognises “hidden hunger”, emphasising abilities of people to meet both energy and nutritional needs. In many parts of the Asia-Pacific, efforts are turning away from rice as a staple crop to varieties such as millets, sorghum and beans. Genetically modified crops, such as the bio-fortified sweet potato and ‘Golden Rice’ with high-levels of beta-carotene have been warmly welcomed to address vitamin A deficiencies in many parts of the world. But these efforts must also be met on the consumption side, with need to educate consumers on nutritional needs, and ensuring market access, availability and affordability.

This shows that agriculture has a vital role across the globe, which extends beyond farmers to scientists, policy-makers, economists, communities and everyday consumers of food like ourselves!

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