How to feed nine billion people, and feed them well

We need more, but more of what? Perhaps not this. David Giles/PA

Resource-intensive agriculture, despite its productivity, nevertheless has failed to feed the world’s current population, never mind the nine billion people expected by 2050. This system that currently fails both people and planet is ripe for revision.

We need to be more ambitious, to go beyond simply producing more. We need to produce more of what’s good – not just cereal staples, but nutrition-dense foods – in ways that can prevent or even reverse land degradation, encourage biodiversity, conserve water, and allow the world’s poor more equal access to land, food, and markets than has historically been the case.

There is a significant “triple burden” of malnutrition. Some 850m people don’t have enough to eat. Perversely some 1.4 billion people are overweight, 600m of them obese. Both groups suffer from micronutrient malnutrition, a lack of key vitamins and minerals. These imbalances mean we ought to examine what exactly is being produced, and how it is distributed. The co-existence of highly productive agricultural systems and hunger, of obesity and starvation, powerfully highlight how global agriculture has failed to substantially narrow economic inequalities, and has perpetuated nutritional imbalances on billions.

And despite its failures, agriculture’s costs are high. Crop and livestock production is responsible for half the methane and two-thirds of the nitrous oxide released by humans. The use of nitrous fertiliser has disrupted global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. And agriculture is a leading driver of global biodiversity loss, something that greatly affects communities around the world that rely on wild species for food and income.

More, but more of what?

We can’t simply hope to produce more of the same and feed the world. There are alternative models, but they need recognition and support. However the emphasis on production efficiency“ is dominant, even in discussions of sustainable agricultural intensification. Here, thought is only given to how to increase supply of cereals and animal products in ever more efficient ways.

The Green Revolution in Latin America and South Asia, for example, resulted in tremendous increases in crop yield. But this was only because new technologies were supported by government subsidies, cheap credit, supportive markets and plentiful irrigation. This increased productivity did not, by itself, result in a better-fed population. It provided an abundance of calorie-rich staple crops such as rice and wheat, but saw the supply of nutrient-rich crops such as pulses and vegetables fall and their cost rise. And this model of intensive irrigation and fertiliser use wasn’t an option everywhere. India’s Green Revolution was concentrated in the favourable lands of the Punjab, ignoring the rain-fed drylands that support most of the country’s farmers.

Even when grown in larger amounts, crops must be accessible and affordable if they are to alleviate hunger. This cannot be left to global markets, whose volatility in recent years has made it substantially harder to alleviate poverty and hunger – a fact recognised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, which has stated “unless local agriculture is developed and/or other income-earning opportunities open up, the food insecurity determined by limited local production will persist, even in the middle of potential plenty at the world level”.

So production is necessary, but insufficient: ensuring produce is properly distributed to fair markets is vital. In India for example, it has long been the case due to a lack of proper storage facilities, corruption and inequity in the means of distribution, grain surpluses are simply left to rot without ever reaching the hungry.

Seeing past the status quo

A recent report on food by Robert Craig, highlights just how dominant this “productivist” approach is. The report examines the status of agriculture in Brazil, Chile, Peru, the US, India, China and New Zealand. Craig shows how – while each country presents very different social-ecological conditions – the dominant rhetoric is the same in each: production, profits, demand, supply and prices of major commodities, traded on world markets. Seen through this lens, there is no room for a nuanced ecological approach, let alone awareness of the political, social and economic factors that influence hunger.

Estimates of land and water are pitted against demand projections. “Sustainability” only means using resources efficiently. Complex environments are reduced to either source or sink. The author is told in Peru “if river water reaches the sea it’s seen as a waste”. He is shown how resources could be developed to meet projected demand: the schemes range from trying to control how much farmers can irrigate in India, to spending £62 billion to bring alive Mao’s vision of a canal to transport water from China’s southern region to its arid north. This is a scheme that has displaced over 300,000 people, disrupted the southern river basins, and may fail anyway, if climate change leaves them with less water in the southern rivers to draw from.

So are there alternatives? Very much so. There is an emerging global movement that emphasises increased consumer participation in (ostensibly) ecologically sound and socially just food systems. And for increasing production using ecologically sound methods, – so-called sustainable intensification, – there is a great deal of agroecological practice worldwide that is recognised by researchers.

In India, farmers are revitalising rice production by applying principles of the System of Rice Intensification. In some states, the technique has been officially endorsed and supported.

Across Africa, sustainable production practices, designed with farmer participation, have raised yields, and enhanced the agricultural landscape. Such practices have also contributed to a range of human development goals, such as food security, alleviating poverty, and improving skills and knowledge. These systems and practices are designed to do more than just conserve resources and boost yields. More ambitious, they aim to feed people balanced, nutrient-rich diets, while reversing the substantially damaging effects on land, plant and wildlife biodiversity that industrial agriculture has wrought.

They can also boost human potential, by increasing the income, skills and political capital of small farmers and landless agricultural labourers who currently steward most of the world’s agricultural land, yet who are completely marginalised. These are the principles and perspectives at the frontlines of genuine change in the global food system. They are already here, and they are the seeds that have been sown for food’s sustainable future.