As if plagues and wars aren’t enough, the media is scaring us about oncoming food shortages. We’re already seeing rising prices in restaurants and grocery stores, and we’re being warned about actual famines in other countries.
There are three main causes. One is the damage to the supply chain movements caused by the pandemic. Hopefully, this problem will be resolved soon.
The second cause is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war. Russia and Ukraine are very large contributors to the world supply of grain and oilseeds. Now these products are much less available because the war has impeded their production and distribution. This will continue longer than the war lasts since it will take time to resume normal farming and transport patterns.
The third reason is extreme weather – that will be most difficult and time-consuming for us to do anything about.
But there are things we can do in the short and longer terms to ensure that the food we have and can produce will be sufficient to avoid mass hunger. Here are some steps:
Stop feeding people food to animals
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Last year, China imported some 28 million tonnes of corn to feed pigs. That would have made several million tonnes of polenta. Close to half of the wheat produced in Europe and about one-third of the wheat produced in America is fed to cows, so it isn’t available to increase the supply and reduce the price of bread, baked goods and pasta.
Bottom fishing is raking our sea beds clear of all forms of ocean life. It’s doing more harm than all the plastics in the oceans. The resulting product contains high-value fish and seafood that could feed people. Instead, it’s made into chicken feed. The word itself indicates its low value.
Even if we stopped feeding people food to animals, we could still raise meat as was done through most of human history by feeding animals grass, coarse parts of plants and other things that humans can’t digest. We would have less meat, it would be leaner and more expensive, but we would have enough for holidays and special occasions, treating meat as the luxury it really is. As a bonus, human health would improve as plants became a larger part of our diets.
Stop feeding people food to cars
Even though it takes about 16 kg of grain to make one kg of beef, people food fed to animals eventually and very inefficiently feeds humans. Grains turned into ethanol and used to fuel cars does not.
In times and places where food is cheap and plentiful, there might be some rationale for using food-based fuels instead of other carbon-based fuels. When food is expensive and becoming scarce, and food insecurity and even famine loom, using wheat to produce gasoline instead of spaghetti or sandwich buns seems immoral.
Gro Intelligence is an artificial intelligence platform that analyzes food production, climate change and related issues. It has estimated that if all the food currently and expected to be diverted into fuel production remained available to feed people, there would be enough to keep 1.9 billion people fed. It’s time to remove all requirements for grain-based ethanol in our vehicle fuels.
Apply technology to food production
This is already happening. Even today, a well-connected smartphone can add great value to a farming operation by using software that can suggest crops and varieties suitable to conditions and locations, determine inputs needed like fertilizer and moisture, and even offer marketing strategies.
Existing technology can increase output and reduce costs, and it’s improving all the time. However, it’s not yet widely applied. In developed countries, educating farmers and having sufficient technicians, technologists and capital available to the agricultural sector could solve this problem.
In less developed countries, the needs go further. Basics like a reliable supply of electricity and an efficient transportation network are needed. An adequate cold chain and secure storage would reduce the 68 million tonnes of food wasted in India each year; that’s about 40 per cent of their total food production. We want and need people food to go to people, not to farm animals, not to cars and certainly not to pests.
Learn to love GMOs
Agricultural products have been improving since farming began, but progress was slow, with advances relying on luck and very extensive, time-consuming, patient work using techniques like cross-fertilization. Current biological knowledge, especially in genetics, means we no longer have to rely on such slow and inefficient methods.
Using genetics, we can modify plants in a timely and efficient manner to make them produce more of the components we want, more adaptable to ever-changing climate and weather conditions, more resistant to pests without needing pesticides, and more economical in their use of space and water.
Despite all this good news, there has been sufficient outcry against this process that yields genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that the sale of GMOs has been banned in Europe.
Because the process is different, there’s fear that the resulting plants may be harmful. However, in North America, we’ve been eating GMOs for decades with never a reported incident of harm. Enough people are anxious to find such examples of harm that, if one occurred, it would definitely have made headlines.
Even in today’s challenging circumstances, we can win the war against hunger by putting food for people first.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. For interview requests, click here.
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