The dictionary defines food as 'what one takes into the body to maintain life and growth'. It goes without saying then that everyone has to eat to live.
According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) there is enough food in the world today for every man, woman and child to lead healthy and productive lives. Even though the world's population has grown 6-fold in the past 200 hundred years, food production has grown even faster thanks mainly to modern machinery, hybrid seeds and better fertilisers. And with the advent of precision farming, which ensures that each plant gets just the right amount of water and fertiliser for maximum yield through the use of drones, satellites, robots and large-scale data collection, this looks set to continue. At the same time, according to Mark Rosegrant, a director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), precision farming also has the potential to reduce fertiliser use whilst allowing farmers to adapt to the effects of climate change.
In the last 20 years farm production has increased by 260% with 2% fewer inputs. This means that there is now 17% more food available per person than there was 30 years ago. Today, it is estimated that 12% (1.6bn hectares) of the Earth's land surface is under crop production and 33% (2.5bn) of people) worldwide depend on farming to support themselves.
However, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) one third of all food produced in the world - approximately 1.3bn tonnes per annum - goes to waste due to a combination of situations ranging from problems with harvesting, storage and transportation.
In the rich countries of the North, where individually we spend on average £9 (US$12) per day on food, the supply and variety has never been better. Visit any supermarket and you will find shelves stacked with affordable produce from all over the world. Going out for a meal, too, in our towns and cities, also affords us a choice of restaurants which serve dishes and drinks from every continent. As a result, on average, most people in the North exceed the FAO recommended daily minimum intake of 1,800 kilocalories a day by some distance.
the other side of the globe, in the South, life could not be more different.
Here most people are subsistence farmers often eking out a perilous existence
using methods of farming that have barely changed through the centuries.
Bad harvests are a continual hazard in this part of the world where some
54 nations (37 in sub-Saharan Africa) are low income countries that do
not produce enough food to feed their people. And the problem for these
countries is that although there may plentiful supplies of food in the
world for everyone's need; politics, greed and indifference all too often
stand in the way of getting surplus food to where it is often desperately
There is more though for nutritionists reckon that the same amount of people again suffer from a hidden hunger - a lack of sufficient micronutrients which are vitamins and minerals that support physical and mental health. As a result 24,000 people die every day from malnutrition and hunger-related diseases - many of them children under 5. That means that the lack of food/malnutrition kills more children in the world today than any infectious diseases, war or natural disasters yet it remains a 'silent emergency' arousing little public concern until the next emergency is thrust onto our TV screens.
In contrast, in the North, a combination of over-abundance, changed eating habits and less-active lifestyles has led to a situation where a large proportion of the population is overweight or obese**. For example, today in the US, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is estimated that 70% of the population is overweight including 35% who are obese. For the UK* the figures are 65% and 26% whilst 36% of children under 15 are overweight. (In 1960 only 2.5% of Britons were obese and 6% in 1980) The UK Department of Health estimates that 80% of weight gain is caused by overeating/over indulging in the wrong type of foods and only 20% by low levels of activity. In the UK this 'extravagant' lifestyle in turn leads to an estimated 33,000 premature deaths annually at a cost to the National Health Service (NHS) of £9bn (US$12bn). And this 'epidemic' also has the knock-on effect of 22m days being lost every year in the work place through sickness leading to a loss of output totalling £2.5bn (US$3.3bn). And, according to World Health Organisation (WHO), unless something changes fundamentally, by 2030 69% of the UK population will be overweight or obese.
(**A healthy weight range is based on a measurement known as the Body Mass Index (BMI). To calculate your BMI you divide your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared. The ideal weight is a reading between 20 and 25 but you are underweight if it is below 20. Between 25 and 30 people are considered overweight and above 30 you are classified as obese.)
(*It is estimated that more than 8 million people in the UK live in households that struggle to put enough food on the table, according to estimates by the Food Foundation. And with growing numbers of people using Trussell Trust food banks hunger in the UK is perhaps more widespread than it might appear.)
The changes needed, say experts, are for the government to restrain the food industry by taxing fizzy drinks/fast food, removing vending machines from schools and taking junk food out of hospitals and government offices. And you and me need to cut down on portions! At the same time we should try leaving our cars at home more and walk or cycle to our intended destination. The average car journey is only 8 miles with 25% of these journeys less than a mile. And for those already using public buses why not start by walking to the next bus stop and then, in a week, the next one after that!
Being overweight, it seems, is now becoming more prevalent in the developing world too. According to the Overseas Development Institute the number of obese and overweight adults in the South has almost quadrupled in the last 30 years to around 900m which added to those in the North means that 2 in 7 people worldwide are now overweight.
But here let us consider what needs to happen in order to tackle hunger worldwide.
To start with, surplus food supplies from the North urgently need to made available to countries where they are desperately needed. Politics should not be played with hunger and starving people need immediate help. But this should not be seen as a permanent solution as shipping food will not improve the prospects of the world's desperately poor, three quarters of whom live in rural areas in developing countries.
At the same time governments in developing countries need to allocate more than the current 6% of their national budgets to agriculture. In 2003, in the Maputo Declaration, African leaders committed to allocating 10% of their national budgets to agriculture and to increasing annual growth to 6% of Gross National Income. Fifteen years on just 7 countries - Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Niger, and Senegal - have reached or exceeded the 10% target whilst 9 countries - Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Congo Republic, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania - have reached growth in agriculture of more than 6% p.a. And so still today in Africa, bizarrely, even with an average of 6% of national budgets allocated to agriculture more money is wasted on defence on a continent where almost 75% of the population is engaged in subsistence farming.
Even with this huge presence on the land, food security continues to remain elusive with many farmers barely able to produce enough food for their own families never mind having any left over to sell. Yet Africa's farmers, who are mainly women working on tiny plots, could grow approximately three times more food if they had more government support in gaining access to essential inputs: fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation and access to local agricultural expertise. And this would not only be a good investment in farming it would also help reduce Africa's annual food import bill of US$35bn on the continent with the largest amount of rain-fed uncultivated land. Moreover, as 65% of agricultural land in Africa is degraded, being allowed access to genetically modified (GM) seeds would also make an enormous difference to food production whilst cutting down on toxic pesticide sprays. Currently, however, due to the machinations of the European Union, green campaign groups and many churches, the advent of GM crops is often resisted by those in authority in Africa.
Farmers also suffer from not owning their own land which makes it impossible for them to put up security in order to borrow money to help bring about improvements. As such, one of the first tasks for governments and state authorities in the South should be to try to work to vest every farmer in the title to his/her own land. In this way the home/farm could be used as security to borrow money for better seeds, fertilisers, tools and machinery which would lead to a big increase in crop production. However, tribal customs can make this a challenge in many parts of Africa.
Farmers could also be encouraged to amalgamate their small plots into co-operatives. (Currently 80% of farms in sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder-family concerns performing at about 40% of their potential) Co-operatives would allow machinery to be bought making life easier for those working the land. In turn this should boost production leaving larger profits to be shared according to the size of land contributed and the hours of work put in. Having certificates of ownership in a co-operative would also allow other farmers to join in and allow those wanting out the means to do so. Coming together like this would also help those families where the bread winner is no longer there or incapable of work. It would also allow children to get back to school instead of having to work in the fields in order to help their families maintain food production.
(According to experts growth in agriculture is up to 11 times more effective at reducing poverty than increases in any other sector. Also 60% of the world's unused agricultural land lies in Africa.)
The main cause of food shortages in poor countries is usually blamed by governments on drought but all too often this can be used as an excuse. Nobody disputes that hunger is aggravated by bad weather but according to a blog from IFPRI in July 2017 'ending famines and chronic hunger requires good governance.' For example, in many parts of Africa water is readily available in countries lacking in food but too many governments either through neglect, alternative priorities, incompetence or lack of finance are not using the water resources available.
Take Ethiopia, for example. Until recently, water from the Ethiopian Highlands and the huge expanse of Lake Tana was hardly tapped at all by a government more concerned about arguing over a worthless town in a useless piece of desert on its border with Eritrea than encouraging farmers to move to more fertile parts of the country where irrigation channels, bore-holes and wells could be constructed to provide water for all their needs. Thankfully this is all about to change with the completion of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, an impressive hydropower project, which will be the continent's largest.
Transport is also a problem. A recent World Bank study found that high transport costs in Africa were driven just as much by poor regulations as by bad roads*. Current regulations impose substantial barriers to entry thus allowing existing transport companies to maintain a monopoly and charge high prices.
(*Only 16% of roads in Africa are paved.)
Joined-up government is essential for moving food supplies within a country. And here again Ethiopia suffered from government inertia. A combination of poor communication, inefficiency and corruption across the country meant that even in good years surplus food lay rotting in one part of the country whilst people starved in another. But even when the message did get through there were few roads in Ethiopia and most of them were potholed big time. So moving grain around the country could be perilous and costly as can be seen from the experience of one enterprising grain merchant who tried to take a truck load of grain from the south to the north of the country.
The journey of 900k (560 miles) meant 17 days on the road to reach his destination. In that time he was stopped 10 times by local officials whom he had to bribe in order to be allowed to move on. And at the end of his ordeal he found that the roads had been so rough that many of his grain sacks had burst open. However, his problems didn't end there. Selling in Ethiopia was also made hazardous by the fact that there was no legal system to enforce contracts and very few traders had bank accounts. As a result vendors could only sell for cash and buyers had to inspect and weigh every bag of grain to ensure that they hadn't been cheated. So as he couldn't find a trustworthy trader prepared to pay in cash he finished up literally giving what was left of his load away. Needless to say that grain merchant is unlikely to undertake such a journey again.
Today more than 20 million Ethiopians are still facing chronic food shortages but this is changing. In 2010 large-scale public and private investments in agricultural research and the promotion of fertilizer use led to substantial gains in cereal production and the availability of food. At the same time infrastructure investments such as improving and expanding road networks is helping to effectively move crops from farms to markets. Together these investments have helped smallholder farm households to achieve higher yields and production, raising their incomes and access to food. Additional programmes including terrace building to reduce soil erosion and education on nutrition have also helped stave off hunger.
(Ethiopia is the birthplace of Arabica coffee which tends to be grown in the cool, humid highlands. With temperatures steadily rising in Ethiopia this is now damaging the crop forcing new plantations to be created on higher ground where the climate is cooler and wetter. Ethiopia is the 5th largest coffee producer in the world employing 15 million farmers and makes up a quarter of the country's export earnings.)
However, exacerbating the food situation in Africa are foreign governments and large international corporations, mainly from India, the Orient and the Gulf, seeking prime agricultural land to grow food for their own people back home. And African governments, it seems, are more than ready to oblige. At the forefront here is again Ethiopia where it is estimated that the government has leased or sold 10 million acres of prime farmland to foreign investors since 2008. In order to achieve this the government has forcefully removed tens of thousands of people, with no compensation, onto marginal land where they are left to fend for themselves. And there they continue to eke out a living whilst fruit and vegetables worth an estimated US$250m per year are exported. So the government may have upped food production in Ethiopia but at the expense of many farming families.
Other countries which have already leased/sold land to foreign entities include Sudan with 4 million hectares, DRC 2.8m, Mozambique 2.7m, Mali 2.0m, Zambia 2.0m, Cameroon 2.0m, Liberia 1.6m, Benin 1.2m, Sierra Leone 1.1m with many of the deals going through at rock-bottom prices. And in the cases of Benin and Sierra Leone Oxfam calculates these figures represent 34% and 32% respectively of total agricultural land in these countries.
governments should have laid down certain conditions before ceding land
to foreign entities:-
be argued, however, that the selling of land to foreigners helped to dispose
of one government in Africa. In March, 2009, in Madagascar, Andre Rajoelina
overthrew the government of Marc Ravalomanana after he promised to lease
half the fertile land in the country to Daewoo, the South Korean conglomerate.
Some UK food facts:-
According to Wrap, the UK waste-reduction charity, families are throwing away £700 worth of food a year on average. In the average home a quarter of a tonne of food a year, the equivalent of 500 meals, ends up in the rubbish bin. Half the waste results from food not being eaten before its use-by date and the rest is from cooking or serving too much. Food and drink waste in households rose from 7 million tonnes in 2012 to 10 million tonnes in 2017.
Perhaps the main reason for this is our misinterpreting of supermarket labelling. Display until is only for supermarket information; best before means what it says that the food is best consumed by the date indicated but can still be used after that; use by is the date that should be heeded and the food thrown away after this expiry date. However, life can be prolonged even here if the food is frozen before the 'use by' date.
Britain's biggest supermarkets have signed up to the Courtauld Commitment 2025 in a campaign that aims to tackle the estimated two million tonnes of food wasted every year in the UK. As such Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons and others will try to double the amount of surplus food they redistribute in a new drive to give to charities which help the poor. Tesco even promised that by the end of 2017 no food that is safe to eat will be wasted inside Tesco UK supermarkets.
In a study by the University of Aberdeen more than 18 million acres of land in foreign countries is now used to grow crops either consumed directly by Britons or fed to British animals that produce meat and milk. This is exactly double the amount of land used in the UK for growing crops and shows Britain is much more reliant on imported food than government official figures show. This comes after a warning form the UK National Farmers Union which accuses successive governments of displaying 'dangerous complacency' over the country's ability to feed itself.