Climate change, water shortages, higher energy prices, crop diseases and a rapidly expanding population. These are all factors that are making it increasingly difficult and risky for farmers and governments to ensure the world has enough to eat.
World agriculture production is not keeping up with population growth. It is estimated that by the year 2030 there will be an extra 1.8 billion people on the planet- that’s a lot of new mouths to feed.
Just in the next decade alone, the world faces the challenge of increasing the food supply by a staggering 20%. This has led some countries, including many in the Gulf, to buy up large swaths of fertile land in Africa to grow crops, while laboratories are hard at work genetically modifying plants to produce higher yields and resist diseases.
Still, it’s predicted that food prices could increase to new peaks, which could lead to widespread social unrest like the kind seen in the Arab Spring. With just 11% of the planet’s land surface suitable for agriculture, precious farmland is in danger of disappearing as populations grow and cities spread.
“We need to protect our arable lands, and our arable lands are shrinking,” Harris Sherman, undersecretary for natural resources and environment for the US Department of Agriculture, told The Media Line on the sidelines of an international conference on food security at Tel Aviv University. “We’ll have a billion or two billion new people in the next 40 years. We have got to protect these arable lands.”
The US and other countries realize that scarcity of food leads to conflicts and the Department of Agriculture together with the State Department have long run programs to boost sustainable agriculture in developing countries through financial and technical assistance.
In the past, an expanding global population could move on and expand farms, but today, with desertification and environmental problems, arable lands are shrinking.
“There’s just not much room to grow anymore, so what we really have to do is increase efficiency to use the limited land and water resources to bump up production going forward,” Philip Pardey, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, told The Media Line.
Genetically modified seeds are helping to produce higher yields that are more resistant to diseases. But the problem is not so much a lack of food as it is getting the harvests to where it’s needed. At Tel Aviv’s Agro Mashov, the self-proclaimed world cup of Agriculture fairs, the theme this year was on marketing food.
“The emphasis of this exhibition is the ‘marketing of produce.’ We believe that one of the solutions for a shortage of food is the transportation of food from one place to another around the world,” said Haim Aloush, chief executive officer of Agro Mashov. “We all know there are places that have abundance and places that have shortages.”
With a reputation for generating high yields with limited water resources, farmers and farm managers from around the world came to Israel to see first hand some of the advances that may be suitable for their countries.
“We have accumulated a lot of knowledge and we will be happy to share it with other countries,” Israeli Minister of Agriculture Irit Noked told The Media Line.
She added that she has set up a team to examine policies to deal with the food crisis in the future.
“I’m talking about 40 years from now, the long range. In the short term, we have what we have, but in the long term, I am thinking of the next generations,” she said.
Companies like Origene Seeds produce genetically modified varieties of melons and vegetables that produce higher yields with less water.
“We have varieties that can be good and are adapted to different climatic conditions that we can sell to the Arab countries,” boasts CEO Eyal Vardi. “I believe our product can give a very good solution for countries like Saudi Arabia, but for now we are selling only to the Arab countries that can buy directly from us.”
With shortages of arable land, Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as China, have been buying up huge tracts of fertile land abroad to serve as their private breadbasket. This land grab has raised alarms by host countries, which fear they won’t be left with enough food for their own people.
“There is a good part of this which is putting a lot of investment in Africa. And one of their big problems is money to buy the food. If it would ever be a case of taking the food out of Africa for Qatar so that it is not getting to the local people, that is a major problem,” says Danny Chamovitz, director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, who organized the conference.
Actually, it is not a lack of food, but a lack of nutritional food.
“In Africa, there are places where people suffer from hunger; there is not enough food in quantity. But in much of the world there is enough food in quantity to fill your stomach but there is not enough in terms of nutrition,” Chamovitz told The Media Line.
According to Chamovitz, the world has never produced more food than it does today, understandably since the world population has never been so big. But, he adds, there are about one billion people who are obese and that about 40% of the world suffers from some kind of food insecurity.
“I think it is the key issue,” he says. “If we don’t deal with this issue of food availability and food security from every point of view and actually bring the economists and the historians and the policymakers together with the biologists, we are being irresponsible.”
“There was a great story about making a mouse that can live longer, and we can actually make people live longer with new medicines,” Chamovitz says. “But what good is that going to do if we don’t have any food?”