Food Security often focusses on feeding 9 billion people by 2050. However, food security is more than just production, supply and consumption of food. Food security needs to evaluate the adequacy of food and its nutritional impact to ensure a healthy life. For over 800 million people in the world, access to sufficient and nutritious food is a serious problem (FAO et al., 2017). Moreover, affordability is another issue pertaining to access to food and nutrition which can prohibit some foodstuffs. Some nations have an abundance of food (food surplus) that ultimately can be wasted, while others have a food deficit. The lack of food security and inequality to access food can lead to conflict.
Food Traditions and Culture
Food also plays an important role in human life, society and culture. Food and diet can be influenced by where you live, how you access it and more, and helps create cultural ties and relations. Some diets are more diverse than others, again due to availability and affordability. When people migrate, they may take their diets with them, they may import their food or they may fuse their diet from their home and host country, like ‘Tex-Mex cuisine’.
Food traditions differ from region to region, across county or state lines, across borders, and sometimes between households. Food can also play an important role in the culture and identity of people, where some foods are deeply rooted with a regional or national sense of identity (Ichijo and Ranta, 2016). Food packaging although will advise where food has come from, but for some foodstuffs, they can only come from a particular region or area and this would be well indicated on the packaging. Location and region can play an important role in the refinement of a product, and can give it a protected status where the region is in the namesake.
For example, Roquefort cheese, comes from a region in southwest France, and its production requires a specific recipe that is dependent on a particular breed of sheep that is fed in a pre-defined way, according to local tradition. The cheese itself is aged in the caves in this region, giving it a unique flavour.
Create a list of foods with special status and understand the reason behind this – what other foods have a protected status and do any of your favourite foods feature? What food is important to you and does it have any regional or national importance?
Nutrition and Diet
Currently there is a lot of research and conversation into the best diet for humans, some promoting a Paleo diet, a vegan diet, a pescatarian diet or a varied diet derived from all the food types to name a few. In response to this, every human is different, their intake differs, their nutritional needs differ and no one diet can claim to be nutritionally and environmentally perfect. Diet and nutrition can also vary based on ethnicity and for this reason, no one diet will suit all.
What food do you enjoy eating, what is your favourite? Write this down and compare it with current nutritional guidelines for a person of your age, ethnicity and gender. When looking at the nutritional guidelines, would you look to change your diet in anyway?
In todays world, with inequality and food insecurity, there are a number of diet-related diseases such as malnutrition, obesity, and other associated diseases from diet and lifestyle such as heart concerns and cancer. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1.9 billion adults in the world are overweight and over 600 million of those are obese. At the same time, 600 million adults are underweight and 264 million women of reproductive age are affected by anaemia due to iron deficiency in their diet (WHO, 2017). Moreover, WHO also estimates that 41 million children in the world under the age of five are overweight or obese, while 155 million children in the same age group are too short for their age and a further 52 million children in this age group are too thin for their height (WHO, 2017).
It is quite clear that therefore, there are serious issues with food supply and affordability, as well as equality. There are also concerns of global distribution of food and intake, where in some regions there is ‘too much’ and many suffering ‘too little’. The lack of healthy diets poses further problems in society in relation to healthcare and welfare provision, such as the ability to care for an obese or malnourished population, increased mortality or inability to procreate.
What causes Food Insecurity?
Previously the biggest limitations to food production was physical geography and the food type. For example, farming was limited to the land, water restrictions, lighting restrictions and longer modes of transportation which caused more spoil and waste. Coupled with better scientific knowledge and transportation, foodstuffs can be made hardier, more productive and easier to transport. However, despite these advancements, there are still limitations, while usually those who can take advantage of technological advancements are the wealthier nations.
Nations are developing and populations are increasing, causing an additional pressure on food production and supplies. As nations continue to build on farmland, forests and other wild areas, they are losing space for cultivation, and there remains great conflicts between living space and agriculture. As nations get wealthier, there is a growing importance on food transportation and preservation, including eating foods out of season and preserving foods using costly electricity.
Dependence on Large Producers – some nations dominate the market in particular food items, and some nations rely heavily on both exports and imports for their income and sustenance respectively. If a large producer cannot produce as much, perhaps due to weather conditions that year, than it has an affect on the market, including increasing prices that make food price and less easy to access. If large wheat and barley producers like Austraila and Russia suffer drought, there would be less food available.
Technology – Improvements in technology have enabled us to produce new foodstuffs, genetically modify food, and transport it further. Technology can overcome temperature, water and nutrient deficiencies such as in greenhouses, irrigation and fertilisers. Pesticides are another example of improving knowledge and technology, but again, this is used by wealthier nations who can afford it. However, technology can incur an economic or environmental cost, such as the cost to manufacture more lighting or water, as well as pollution or eutrophication .
Conflict and Poverty – When there is conflict, people are likely to flee and stop cultivating, while farmland and food supplies are often destroyed in conflict, sometimes tactfully. Food shortages and famines have themselves caused conflict in regions. Coupled with poverty, when people are living in poverty, they are likely to prioritise their own survival and sustenance farming above say intensive agriculture for market. Moreover, if people are injured, killed or made ill through conflict or poverty, they cannot cultivate the land as before – thus reducing the number of people able to produce.
Climate Change – Climate change has the ability to affect temperatures and rainfall, making the climate unreliable and unpredictable. This has the ability to cause monumental chaos to agricultural production as we know it, as crops are more likely to fail, causing increased prices and conflict. Moreover, Climate Change can affect species, and some would suffer with irregular climates and rising temperatures, while there is a possibly new pests may arise or target areas they could not before due to temperatures.
Water Stress – Water stress and challenges in accessing water can affect the production of most crops. Irrigation methods attempt to provide water in times on unreliability or low rainfall, however, these systems are often expensive and deprive other areas of water. Water can be obtained by underground aquifers or rivers, and these can come at an environmental cost – and potentially impact human populations as well. Water security and conflict play a role in food security and reliability.
Impacts of Food Insecurity
Food Insecurity has the ability to disrupt society and cause civil unrest, and some food production inadvertently causes damage to production and quantity of foodstuffs overtime.
Famine and Malnourishment – There are three classifications of famine. Undernourishment is when people do not consume enough calories, malnutrition is when people do not eat enough of the right foods, and wasting is the most severe form of hunger, where a person suffers severe weight loss due to acute malnutrition from starvation. Famine and malnourishment has other impacts also on society, including it’s ability to produce effectively, whether that is foodstuffs, manufacturing goods and even children.
Rising Prices and Debt – as food lowers in availability or accessibility, its value increases. Some food types are easier to cultivate, whereas others are more challenging, and this means some producers can set a price or value – think how expensive Madagascan Vanilla is. Although some governments have set up protectionist measures to keep prices stable, if food cannot be produced or easily transported then the value will go up. Since 2000, food prices have gone up. Moreover, producers can incur debt from borrowing seeds and loans and not being able to sell their produce at a high enough price to profit or repay the loan, again due to the volume of goods in the market.
Social Unrest and Conflict – Everyone depends on food for survival, and if you cannot access this, you will fight to survive. The same could be said if food is no longer available or not in the volumes hoped, which can cause civil unrest or protests. People would lose faith in government or their leaders if food supplies cannot be maintained and would cause social unrest. The perception of declining food stocks during the COVID19 pandemic highlight that, although some food supplies were impacted, food shortages can be perceived and then made reality through mass media.
Soil Erosion – Farming can lead to the reduction or removal of soil as important nutrients are lost and soil dries out. This causes soil to lose its ability to sustain life and impact further production of food, impeding the crisis..
Deforestation, overgrazing and over-cultivation – intensive farming can result in soil erosion as soil is exposed and vulnerable to the elements. Over-grazing and cultivation can mean the soil degrades in it’s nutrients, making it more difficult to cultivate each time it is used, before it loses this ability. Deforestation moreover can have other environmental impacts, including changing weather and climates overtime, while also losing biodiversity and causing species extinction.
How can you mitigate Food Insecurity and increase production?
The current method of cultivation has it’s pros and cons, and is extremely varied based on location, wealth and climate. There is the ‘traditional’ farming method, that involves working the land, sowing seeds and harvesting when ready. there is also Greenhouse production that enables greater control over the environment including temperature, water and disease.
There are some different methods to food production that may increase yields or reduce environmental impact.
Irrigation is the diversion of water from rivers and streams and direct them to crops to sustain them. Irrigation has been heavily employed in some areas of cultivation, and some water sources deprived due to it. Irrigation can improve the yield of produce as it provides a consistent water supply in a somewhat controlled manner.
Hydroponics is a holistic food production system that could address food security challenges, increase biodiversity, and potentially mitigate climate change through reducing emissions and ecological restoration. Hydroponics is the cultivation of crops without soil, instead using nutrient solutions dissolved in a water (Treftz et al, 2016), which enables food production in difficult terrain such as poor or low soil conditions including urban environments. Hydroponics could ‘dominate’ food production as the population increases and arable land declines due to poor land management (George et al, 2016), compounded by the impacts of climate change such as unpredictable meteorological weather events (Admane et al, 2013).
Hydroponics could potentially serve to mitigate climate change in that it could reduce carbon emissions related to food production, storage, and transportation as produce is proximate to consumers and it improves food production efficiency. Growing Underground is a farm found 33 metres below Clapham in London, concentrating on ‘leafy green’ vegetables serving the local population, and using 70% less water than conventional farming (Epstein, 2017). This project demonstrates that disused spaces such as car parks, warehouses and second world war tunnels are all commercially viable spaces for crop production, while moving production underground enables more crops or local species to flourish on the surface. It was estimated that 55% of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2018, which is expected to increase to 68% by 2050 (United Nations, 2018), therefore hydroponic food production could provide a sustainable way to produce food in urban areas.
Aeroponics is the process of growing plants with only water and nutrients, often in vertical shelves. Arguably this method results in faster growth, healthier plants, and bigger yields — all while using fewer resources. Like hydroponics, the plants are grown in a substrate, but they are suspended in the air. Aeroponic systems are more cost effective than other systems as they can use less chemicals due to the nutrient delivery system and mist. Moreover, it has lead to the creation of aeroponic bio-pharming, which is used to grow pharmaceutical medicine inside of plants.
Some research suggest that aeroponics is more efficient than hydroponics as it gives roots greater access to oxygen as compared to water solution. There is potential with aeroponics and NASA has funded research into the development of new advanced materials to improve aeroponic reliability and maintenance reduction. Importantly soilless cultivation could help space exploration and survival, see BioServe Space Technologies.
Like hydroponics, aeroponics also enables us to grow in undesirable spaces and make better use of land and buildings, while also providing food supplies closer to the consumer in cases of densely populated areas that are not self-sufficient. LettUs Grow provide container farms, called DROP & GROW™, that enable consumers and businesses to grow their own produce in the space of a container.
The New Green Revolution
The Green Revolution first began in the 1940s and refers to the application of modern farming techniques in low income developing countries (LIDCs), which includes the use of fertilisers and pesticides, improved irrigation and high-yield crop varieties, such as some Genetically Modified Food. As a result, between the 1960s to 1990s, yields of various crops increased, like that of rice and wheat increase despite increasing land scarcity and rising land values. Although populations had more than doubled, the production of cereal crops tripled during this period, with only a 30% increase in land area cultivated (Wik et al, 2008). Between 1960 and 2000, yields for all developing countries rose 208% for wheat, 109% for rice, 157% for maize, 78% for potatoes, and 36% for cassava (FAO, 2004).
A lot of the success can be attributed to large public investment in crop genetic improvement, which already built on the scientific advances of the developed world for the major staple crops—wheat, rice, and maize—and adapted those advances to the conditions of developing countries. International public goods institutions were left to disseminate technology to poorer nations as the private sphere had little incentive to do so.
In recent times and since the 2000s investment has decreased despite the growing populations and impact of climate change on production. After the 2008 food price rises, there has been renewed interest an a ‘Green Revolution’ to provide cheaper goods and stability to prices.
Initially, crop genetic improvement focused mostly on producing high-yielding varieties (HYVs), however another important factor is reducing the time to maturity – which would reduce growing time and increase crop intensity. Combined with knowledge sharing and networking, this reduced the costly venture of scientific study.
However, increased production has socio-economic and environmental consequences.
- the new green revolution and use of biotechnology, appropriate technology
- an example of a large scale agricultural development to show how it has both advantages and disadvantages.
Overview of strategies to increase food supply:
- the potential for sustainable food supplies: organic farming, permaculture, urban farming initiatives, fish and meat from sustainable sources, seasonal food consumption, reduced waste and losses
- an example of a local scheme in an LIC or NEE to increase sustainable supplies of food.
There is more to food security than simply increasing production. Although we know the method to increase production, such as greenhouses, there are socio-economic and environmental impacts to this. Food is about dietary choices and preferences, culture and traditions and environmental sustainability. Although humanity can create more greenhouses and genetically modify good, it does not mean such methods would be ethical or deliver environmental sustainability. There are issues with current production including greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and loss of habitat that need to be tackled to ensure sustainable food production and food security.
Monoculture and Agrobiodiversity
Diets, nutrition and food production can have a big impact on the environment and sustainability. Monoculture, which is the cultivation of a single crop, massively reduces diversity and can harm local flora and fauna. However, it forms a large-part of industrial farming and agriculture, which whole fields and areas dedicated to certain crops. This makes some species especially vulnerable, for example if one area experiences drought it is likely all crops would be affected, and likewise if there is a disease targeting a certain species, it could impact the whole crop. Many scientists are now looking into agrobiodiversity to combat food insecurity, nutrition insecurity, climate change and environment degradation. Agrobiodiversity is a way of cultivating numerous crops, to improve resilience, biodiversity, and diversify diets in a sustainable way. There are some ways to reduce the reliance on commercially grown vegetables, including buying them locally and when in season, but also incorporating local wild plants in diet to increase diversity and connect people to nature.
Upon reviewing your own diet, how truly diverse and environmentally friendly is it?
A fun activity is to complete a food diary and cross-reference with the Dinner Plate Diversity resource. This type of diagram is called a phylogenetic tree, where the shorter branches show a common node or origin. From here, input the components of your meal and really measure how diverse it is.
According to McCouch et al. (2013), the world depends on fewer than a dozen of approximately 300 000 species of flowering plants for 80% of human calorie intake. There is a vast diversity that remains unknown and untapped. McCouch and colleagues (2013) called for a global effort to make better use of agrobiodiversity in the global food supply. Moreover, s study by Shumsky et al. (2014), carried out in two villages in semi-arid parts of rural eastern Kenya, showed that edible wild plants formed an important source of food and nutrition to households that reported food insecurity.
Where does your food come from? Look at the labels on your food and see where it has been transported from to reach you? Is it from far-away, tropical climates? Where is the furthest place? Food mileage is another concern for sustainable diets and food security.
Invasive Species, Alternative Food and ‘Frontier Food’
Many plant and animal species were are familiar with were introduced and some have become invasive, like the Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), an ornamental garden plant, has has also become the centre of legal measures for its control in the UK. the The spread of invasive species has generally prompted measures to control or eradicate these species. However, some have seen such species as an opportunity to diversify the sources of food whilst helping native species (e.g. Eat the Invaders, 2017).
Frontier Food provides an unconventional and diversified food source, to help feed the world’s population. Algae, fungi, insects, invasive species and weeds are some of unconventional food sources that have been explored. Humans have eaten macroalgae, like wakame and nori seaweed, for thousands of years, however there is growing research in microscopic algae (e.g. Algaennovation, 2019). Until recently, there is 3D printed meat (e.g.Redefine Meat, 2021) and ‘meatless’ meat alternatives too made from mushrooms, soya and Jackfruit.
Food alternatives need not simply address the food insecurity experienced by humans. Livestock rely on feed and a large part of agriculture is cultivating food for livestock to feed other animals like humans in turn. Algae plantations for example can replace fishmeal, wild fish used to feed farmed fish, which would be better for maintaining fish stocks without depleting wild resources. Therefore sustainable farming methods and alternative food sources could help feed humans and livestock, helping maintain a level of food supplies and mitigating disruption to diets.
We briefly mentioned diets and how humans can impact the environment positively by choosing their food wisely – see Ethical Consumption for more information. Veganism is a good example of a movement focussed on reducing their environmental impact and animal cruelty by reducing consumption of animal and dairy products, which accounts for large numbers of carbon emissions. The Vegan Movement has seen strides in the way of alternative food sources and products, like meatless burgers, and greater traction with public perception. However, it would be prudent to look at the carbon emissions and manufacture of certain diets, including tropical and sub-tropical fruit and how meatless meat is manufactured using electricity and water. Some would go further and argue that Veganism and Vegetarianism, that rely heavily on fresh produce, is not easy to access or afford for all people, and there is much research into the nutritional value and substitutions within the diet. Therefore, there is much debate about the best, most environmentally friendly and most sustainable diets to help with food security. It is generally accepted that local, seasonal diets remain the ideal diet to reduce carbon emissions.
Would you eat an algae omelette or 3D printed steak? When you are next shopping, look for some alternative foods or substitutions and review the ingredients.