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Feeding Billions: Local Solutions or Global Distribution?

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With a world population of 9.5 billion by 2050, the goal of cutting hunger in half (even in percentage terms) is an extreme challenge. Coupled with increased demand for animal protein foods in emerging nations (www.ers.usda.gov) food production will need to double by 2050. Never mind that we already produce the equivalent of 2,720 calories per person, per day in the world. Half of that production is lost somewhere in the supply chain. Much of it cannot be delivered to the hungriest 17% of the current global population (more than 1 billion people) due to a lack of transportation infrastructure, government trade agreements, regulations on safety and quality, political and economic consequences, or a lack of acceptance or resources by the potential recipients. The estimated need for expanded food production will require 12% more land and new technologies that will allow crop production to use less water and fertilizer and survive floods, saline soils and climate change.

Technological advances in crop production are critical to feeding the world's population because increased agricultural production must be sustainable in itself as well as sustain air, soil and water quality. Food production and distribution - a global business - is inextricably linked to the quality of human life in big cities as well as remote rural villages. Of the 1.3 billion people now living on less than $1.25 per day, almost two-thirds are in China, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia (www.guardian.co.uk). Hundreds of nations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and research institutions are working diligently to discover the next "green" green-revolution that will feed tomorrow's children at home and afar.

In contrast, affluent consumers are on a quest for "local" food - food that does not travel far to one's household, food that does not leave a big carbon footprint, food from animals produced in the most humane manner and without hormones or antibiotics, and food production that preferably complies with organic farming standards including not using genetically modified seed. Although hard to define, "local food" often includes knowing who the producer is or at least the reputation of the producing locale for quality products such as Colorado peaches, Texas grapefruit, or Napa Valley wine. By now, several studies (foodindustrycenter.umn.edu) have established that local foods do not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint, are not necessarily organic, and often are more expensive than commercially produced products. Nevertheless, consumers with resources often seek out locally and/or organically produced food for its allegedly superior taste, nutrition, and safety and to support their local community. It also reflects a growing distrust of the commercial food system.

Is this growing preference for local food compatible with the need to build global food security and reduce hunger in the world? The answer is yes, but with important caveats and accommodations, both technological and ideological.

Global distribution and large scale agriculture is an irreversible fact. It is estimated that organic food production would, at best, feed about 3.5 billion people - less than half of the world's population (Fedorff, 2010). More than 13% of food consumed in the U.S. is imported from over 125 countries and 23% of our agricultural production is exported around the world (www.ers.usda.gov). Without world food trade commodity markets would collapse, food prices would soar, and even more people would go hungry.

High quality local food, however, will be a vital part of the solution to increase food production and feeding the poor and the hungry. Scientists are working diligently on developing new breeds of indigenous foods that are richer in micro-nutrients and/or can produce higher yields on poor soils. Some examples include adding vitamin A to rice, sweet potatoes, cassava, and maize and adding zinc and iron to wheat, rice, and beans. Biofortification uses a variety of techniques including conventional breeding, transgenic/genomics, or simply boosting the nutrient content of the soil or water to boost the uptake of nutrients into the food (Bouis and Welch, 2010). There are many success stories: the Philippines (tilapia), India (dairy) and Asia (mung beans) (Spielman and Pandya-Lorch, 2010). Two organizations pursuing this research include the Harvest Plus Project at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington D.C. and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture(CIAT) in Cali, Columbia. Their goal is to develop affordable, nutritious varieties of foods traditionally consumed by rural, indigenous people in order to provide better nutrition, better crop yields, and alleviate hunger (www.harvestplus.org/).

The adoption of biofortified foods depends on more scientific and field research to perfect the agronomic adaptability and gain local producer and consumer acceptance. It also requires the endorsement of consumers in the Western World, many of whom have lobbied against the development and adoption of genetically modified foods. New breeds of old foods will also require education for different agricultural practices and/or new cooking methods. New markets for these modified foods could offer new resources to poor framers. Nutritionally enhanced indigenous (local) foods have the potential to curb starvation and boost the productivity of millions of poor people.

It turns out that higher quality local food production is complementary to global trade, not only in prosperous countries but also for the millions of poor and hungry people around the world. Science can make it possible; compassion and education will make it happen.


* This post is based on a presentation given by Professor and Director Emeritus Jean Kinsey at the D.W. Brooks Lecture, University of Georgia, 10/5/2010. A copy of the presentation is available on The Food Industry Center's Presentations webpage.


1. www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/November03/findings/richerworld.htm

2. www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/datablog/2010/sep/14/bottom-billion-poverty

3. foodindustrycenter.umn.edu/Local_Foods_Case_Studies/index.htm

4. Nina Fedorff, Penn State Univeristy, "Issues of Our Time: Rethinking Food Production in a Hotter, Drier World," Speech at IUFoST 15th World Food Conference, Cape Town S. Africa, August, 2010

5. www.ers.usda.gov

6. Howarth E. Bouis and Ross M. Welch, "Biofortification - A Sustainable Agricultural Strategy for Reducing Micronutrient Malnutrition in the Global South." Crop Science, 50:April 2010.

7. David J. Spielman and Rajul Pandya-Lorch, Proven Successes in Agricultural Development - A technical Compendium to Millions Fed. Washington DC, IFPRI, 2010.

8. www.harvestplus.org/


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This page contains a single entry by Jean Kinsey published on February 1, 2011 9:30 AM.

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