Feeding the planet, energy for life

Will we be able to provide healthy and sustainable food to a growing population? An introduction to the theme of Expo 2015

Food is …


Food is not just the obvious way of providing our organism with the energy and substances it needs, in other words, the primary right of everyone, but is also the foundation of healthy physical and mental development, and therefore health and longevity. The extraordinary improvement in the quality of life that has been achieved over recent generations is probably due more to better food than to more effective medicines. Consequently, having enough to eat is also a precondition of any type of individual emancipation and economic development.

Eating is also one of life’s essential pleasures, which is accessible to everyone and which nobody can do without. It is a pleasure that unites us all.

The food tradition is a reflection of our life, which evolves over time, which tells us who we are and to which community we belong.

Therefore, food really is “energy for life”.

But “to guarantee everyone on earth sufficient food that is also good, safe and sustainable”, which Expo 2015 wants, is an enormous challenge, not just because of the numbers involved, but also because the equally numerous dimensions – scientific, technological, environmental, economic, political, social, cultural – are all inter-connected.

Like any complex problem, this one has no simple solutions either. The cause of the food problems does not exist, nor does the solution: we distrust demagogues (of any political colour) who claim to have a magic recipe tucked up their sleeve. In reality, solutions have to be as diverse as the local situations they seek to resolve. Which is why Expo 2015 will present equally diverse ideas from all over the world. Because the food challenge – as the past has taught us – can be met.

Famine is still an enormous problem

In 2013, about 842 million people – around one person in eight of the world’s population – suffer chronic famine and lack sufficient food to lead an active life. The most afflicted region is Africa, where one person in four is under-nourished, followed by some southern Asian countries.

But a simple calorie count does not go far enough: the availability of all of the nutrients that our organism needs is also important. But unfortunately, one and a half billion people suffer from anaemia due to the lack of iron. Every year, half a million children become blind through lack of vitamin A and half of them die the following year. Lack of zinc causes the death of around 400,000 children. 165 million children suffer from malnutrition, which also has long-term consequences for their cognitive capacity and therefore their ability to study and find a job.

The good news is that 173 million people fewer suffer from famine compared with 1990, in spite of the fact that the world’s population has increased in the meantime from 5.5 billion to nearly 7 billion. The main reason is the reduction in poverty: most of the improvements have in fact been made in two countries, China and India, which have seen very fast economic growth over this period. In Africa, too, for the first time in decades, food production per capita has grown since 2008.

The quality of the diet has also improved: in emerging countries, the availability of fruit and vegetables per person has increased by 90%, that of meat and dairy products by 70% and that of vegetable oils by 32%. In all, the availability of protein has increased by 20% and the dependence on cereals and tubers has declined. But again, Africa and southern Asia are the regions that have benefited least from the progress made.

Very many people already have sufficient food

However, in Italy, as in other advanced countries and in the majority of emerging countries, people eat like no generation has ever managed to do before.

The problem of chronic food shortages and chronic famine for the greater majority of the population was resolved in the Nineties thanks to an extraordinary increase in agricultural productivity and animal husbandry as the result of the systematic application of new scientific knowledge.

Agricultural production increased from 1.84 billion tonnes of food in 1960 to more than 4.38 billion tonnes today (+138%) without a significant increase in the areas under cultivation. In the same period, the number of cattle and buffalo increased one and a half times (to 1.6 billion) as did that of sheep and goats (to 2 billion). The number of pigs increased 2.4 times (to 10 billion) and poultry 4.4 times (to 18 billion).

In spite of the fact that the world’s population has increased from 3 billion to 7 billion, every inhabitant of the plant has, on average, more food available today.

Not only has the quantity of available food increased, but also the quality. Thanks to the development of markets and transport systems, a large variety of fruit and vegetables is available at all times of the year. And improved agricultural methods and, in particular, new preservation technologies, mean that food is no longer as perishable as in the past through contamination by micro-organisms and fungal toxins. Thanks to very strict standards, particularly European standards, and food analyses, the adulteration of food that was common practice until the Seventies has been drastically reduced. Many of the comments made about “the good food we had in the old days” are simply a myth: one hundred years ago, according to the historical statistics provided by ISTAT, gastrointestinal diseases were the second cause of death in Italy.

The new problem is that we eat too much

Once you start to eat more, it is not easy to stop, also because – as experienced by anyone who has tried to lose weight – we are biologically equipped to defend ourselves against scarcities, but not against abundance.

Paradoxically, today, the number of people overweight (1.1 billion) or obese (500 million) is almost exactly double that of people affected by famine. But should the current trend continue, it is also double compared with 1980 and half compared with 2030.

We are used to thinking that this is a problem of rich countries. In fact, two thirds of Americans weigh more than they should, and of these, 36% of adults and 17% of children are obese. But in the last few years, the same problem has also erupted in emerging countries: 53% of Brazilians are either overweight or obese, 65% of Mexicans, 70% of the inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa and even 25% of the Chinese. In Italy, 31% of the population is overweight and a further 10% is obese.

Equally paradoxically, mothers who have suffered from malnutrition produce children who tend to put on weight as adults, if circumstances improve, and the same happens with mothers who are overweight or obese.

The cause is known as “food transition”: as income grows, food with a low calorie content, such as cereals, are replaced by other food that is not only more expensive, but also has a higher calorie content, such as meat, milk and dairy products or manufactured products, often of low nutritional quality, because they are too rich in calories and too poor in micronutrients. At the same time, life is becoming more sedentary, so the need for calories is diminishing.

So diets that are too poor become too rich, as has also happened in Italy, where food consumption was only completely in line with actual need around 1955. Often, essentially healthy food traditions, such as the Mediterranean diet in parts of the south, are altered or discontinued.

According to the World Health Organisation, overweight is responsible for 44% of diabetes cases, 23% of heart attacks and 40% of some types of cancer and has become the fastest growing cause of illness. The problem is particularly serious in emerging countries, where the resources and structures needed to cure so many people are simply not available. For example, it is estimated that there are between 90 million and 100 million diabetics in China alone.

Is there a risk that food will become scarce again?

In theory, the earth could perhaps sustain even twice the number of inhabitants today. But in practice, a series of problems means that many people are still starving: agricultural productivity is still very low in many regions of the world, together with distribution problems, distortion of the markets, consumption of meat rather than plant products, waste along the entire supply chain and by consumers, competition from biofuels, urban expansion. And, in spite of past successes, two signs seem to indicate the possibility that in the next few years, food may become scarce again, including in countries that are currently regarded as secure in this respect.

The first sign is the gradual increase in the prices of farm foods, which had already started in 2000-2005, after thirty or forty years of price stability or even a downward trend. The increase was also marked by two dramatic price peaks, one in 2007-2008 and one in 2010-2011, indicating that the demand for food is essentially exceeding the supply. The price increase then has the immediate effect of preventing access to food of the very poor, i.e. those with greater need. According to many observers, the 2007-2008 price peak was the spark that ignited the Arab Spring.

The second sign is the “land grab” by governments and major private investors, who are buying up enormous tracts of agricultural land to the tune of tens of millions of hectares, particularly in Africa and Latin America. It is not clear whether it is a question of development aid or new colonialism, but it is highly likely that many feel the need to secure an asset that is destined to become scarcer.

In 2050, we will number another two billion and also be more demanding

On the basis of the present and future growth in the demand for food, two very important phenomena need to be considered:

the first is the increase in population, which according to the “average” scenario of the United Nations, would increase from 7 billion to more than 9 billion. This is equivalent to having to feed another two Indias within forty years, or three if we also count those who are still hungry today.

The second phenomenon is the combination of urbanisation and economic development.  Every year, approximately 60 million people leave rural areas to go and live in cities: between now and 2050, the percentage of the urban population will increase from 50% to 70%. In cities, people find new opportunities and can therefore allow themselves “richer” food: this is the food transition that we mentioned earlier. Take China, for example. Whereas in 1978, people consumed 8 million tonnes of meat a year compared with 71 million tonnes today, their meat consumption is still only a third of American consumption. But meat production requires animal feedstuffs, mainly soya and corn, which take up land that could be used to produce food for direct human consumption, which would feed seven times more people.

When combining the increase in population with the larger quantity of food consumed on average by each inhabitant, according to the FAO, we will need to produce 70% more food in 2050 compared with today. The annual production of cereals would have to increase from 2.1 billion tonnes to 3 billion tonnes. That of meat would have to more than double.

That does not seem an impossible objective on paper. If we have succeeded in coping with an 80% increase in the population between 1970 and 2010, we may be able to cope with a 30% increase between now and 2050.

The problem is that on the one hand, the demographic increase will be concentrated in the emerging countries, where little land is still available for conversion to agriculture, where there is little water and the environmental limits are already close to being reached, and on the other,

in the poorer countries, too (in particular in Africa, where the population would double), where it is more difficult to increase agricultural productivity.

Therefore, there is a definite risk that tomorrow, the number of people without enough to eat may increase again.

Is it possible to produce an extra 70% food?

Increasing food production by 70% in the next 40 years might prove to be more difficult than it was to increase it by 150% in the last forty years.

The population is increasing by approximately 1% a year, so by calculating the higher demand for plant products to produce meat, agricultural production would have to increase by approximately 1.5% a year. The problem is that in the last few years, agricultural output has been increasing by barely 1% a year on average: in the Sixties it rose by 3% a year.

There are three main ways to produce more, each of which has its own limits and risks.

The first consists of bringing the yields of some regions more in line with those of more productive regions. In eastern Europe, for example, grain production fluctuates between 2 and 4 tonnes per hectare, whereas in western Europe, they may even reach 9 tonnes. These differences are due to the lack of suitable seeds, fertilisers and other technical resources, better farming methods and therefore have economic and political causes. However, as we shall soon see, the intensification of agricultural production has been the cause for considerable environmental problems and loss of biodiversity.

The second way consists of breeding animals inside rather than outside, thereby improving them from the genetic point of view and with new feed formulations, all things that allow major gains in productivity. However, gains in meat production are made at the expense of animal welfare and result in some forms of environmental impact.

The third way consists of increasing the productivity of plants and at the same time reducing the environmental impact of their cultivation. This means adapting plants to the environment more effectively (for example, making them able to defend themselves against attack by parasites or demand less water) instead of the other way round (for example using more phytochemicals or more water) as has been the case in particular up to now. Today, through the genetic improvement of the plants themselves, this can be done more quickly and more precisely than in the past, but in order to achieve it, we have to invest more in research and also use (not in isolation!) some genetic engineering techniques that are meeting with fierce opposition, at least in Europe.

And will we manage to do so without causing too much environmental damage?

Even if we tend to see farming as something ‘natural’, it is, in fact, a completely artificial activity which actually has a huge impact on the environment, if only because it replaces a natural ecosystem that is both resistant and rich in terms of biodiversity with one that is both artificial and more fragile. And nowadays, over a third of the Earth’s total land surface is given over to food production.

From this point of view, one benefit of the intensification of agriculture over the last fifty years has been a huge increase in food production in return for a fairly modest increase in the amount of land cultivated. It has been calculated that, if agricultural yields were still at 1961 levels, 82% of the Earth’s total land surface would now need to be used as farmland.

It is the most advanced countries, such as Europe and North America, which have benefited the most. Indeed, productivity has increased to such an extent that huge areas have actually been restored to their natural state. In Italy, for example, the end of marginal hill and mountain farming and free-range grazing has meant forests now once again cover an area greater than that of Lazio and Tuscany combined, and these forests are also home to wildlife.

However, many regions around the world (including Italy, to a certain extent) have paid a heavy price for the intensification of agriculture: soil impoverishment and salination, the exhaustion of aquifers, pollution from fertilisers and pesticides, huge energy consumption, the reduction of farming biodiversity to an incredibly small number of highly productive species and varieties.

Special mention must be given here to the meat industry, whose environmental impact is literally gigantic. The FAO has calculated that, if we weighed all the domestic animals on a set of scales, we would find that they represented a fifth of all the animals on Earth. We use a quarter of the Earth’s land surface for grazing: an area the size of the whole of Africa plus half of Europe, where soil and vegetation are damaged. We use a third of all land fit for cultivation for the production of animal feed, such as soy and corn. Meat production is also the main factor behind the destruction of tropical forests and is responsible for 18% of the Earth’s greenhouse gas production: a contribution greater than that of the entire global transport system. The livestock industry is also one of the world’s greatest consumers of fresh water.

Will we manage to solve the water problem?

Lack of water is probably the single most important factor limiting food production, which is responsible for the consumption of 70% of the fresh water available on Earth, a percentage which rises to 90% in arid regions such as the Middle East and North Africa. Irrigated land actually represents 20% of all the land given over to farming, but produces 40% of world yields.

In no other country is this problem as serious as in China. In the north of the country, where half of the population live and where most of the land fit for cultivation is located, the availability of water per capita is barely a fifth of the international ‘water difficulty’ threshold. According to the former Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, this lack of water threatens “the very survival of the Chinese nation”. But in large areas of India, too, the speed at which aquifers are being extracted is much greater than their capacity to replenish themselves.

Many people predict that, by 2030, agriculture will need 45% more water and the forecast increase in meat production could exacerbate the problem. However, the cities in which 70% of the world’s population live will also need more water. And we do not know what will happen to our water reserves as a result of climate change.

In order to drastically reduce water consumption, we need new irrigation technologies, such as drip irrigation, which will require an investment of almost one trillion dollars over the next forty years, according to the FAO. Once again, this problem will mainly affect poor countries, i.e. those less able to equip themselves with the necessary technology.

Overcoming poverty means overcoming hunger, and vice versa

Paradoxically, hunger is a rural problem, i.e. the very places where food is produced. However, at the same time (and more predictably), it is a problem produced by poverty. Thus, there is a genuine vicious circle which exists between hunger and poverty: hunger is the greatest cause of poverty, which in turn prevents the purchase or production of sufficient amounts of food. Experience has shown us that general economic growth helps to alleviate the problem of hunger, but also that, in order to improve the conditions of the poorest stratum of society, the rate of growth from agriculture is twice as efficient as that which occurs in other sectors of the economy. And this should come as no surprise, considering that most poor people live in the countryside and depend on agriculture. In other words, first and foremost, hunger must be fought by helping small-scale farmers to produce and earn more.

In order to do so, and to ensure sustainability, it is necessary to increase productivity, i.e. the quantity and value of the product, while still using the same amount of land.

Another effect of increasing agricultural production is that food prices will remain low enough to fight hunger and poverty. All this can be achieved by enabling small-scale farmers to purchase seeds, fertilisers and other technical resources, improving infrastructure and thus allowing access to local markets and creating social protection networks able to support the farmers during difficult periods. It is no accident that much of the progress made in Africa over the last few years can be put down to remittances from emigrants, which are now three times greater than the financial assistance provided for development.

Sustainable intensification: possible, but not easy

Is it possible to keep producing more food, without increasing the already considerable environmental impact of agriculture and livestock farming? In theory, yes. The last few years have seen the promotion of the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’, i.e. increased land productivity and more efficient use of the necessary resources.

There are several possible courses of action and considerable room for manoeuvre.

So-called ‘precision agriculture’ techniques, based on satellite observation and digital technology, enable us, for example, to use water, fertilisers and energy only when, where and in the quantities needed, by adjusting doses even metre by metre. Crops can be protected from parasites through ‘integrated pest management’ – a field in which Italy is the world leader – which involves a combination of synthetic chemical, agronomic and biological resources to ensure optimal efficiency with minimal impact on the environment and the health of the farmers. Proper regulation of the use of agricultural chemicals is also important; in this regard, a particularly effective regulation and control system is in place across Europe. We can increase the number of varieties grown and reintroduce certain traditional techniques which work well. And this applies to both large and small concerns, irrespective of the type of production technique used or the level of economic development.

Nevertheless, a key principle of sustainable intensification is that, given the huge diversity of farming systems around the world, no solution will be perfect for everyone: there is no universal recipe. Let me quote a recent UN document (Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems): “Ideological battles over whether it is right or wrong to eat meat or whether agriculture should be ‘conventional’, ‘GM’, or ‘organic’ can lead to inconsistent and inefficient outcomes, particularly when local contexts are ignored in sweeping campaign rhetoric. To feed and green the world means to support the dynamic evolution of farming systems more strongly by providing farmers with necessary information, inputs, and recognition. There is no revolutionary alternative”.  In other words, solutions must be assessed one by one, in concrete terms and on a case-by-case basis, abandoning the broad, catch-all categories (such as ‘organic farming’ or ‘industrial agriculture’) which we have been wont to use.

Sustainable intensification, however, also entails two problems which simply cannot be ignored.

The first is that we need a new, major effort in terms of public agricultural research. The successes of the Green Revolution in the 1970s were due to large investments by governments, investments which have been markedly reduced over the last few decades, to such an extent that the majority of more recent innovations have been achieved by private investors and thus benefit primarily the richest countries. If a new Green Revolution (this time more sensitive to its environmental impact) it to occur, we will need much more research, a much greater transfer of technology to the farmers, and much less prejudice as regards certain technologies, such as genetic engineering.

The second problem is that sustainable intensification generally requires the adoption of agricultural techniques that are more advanced, more expensive and more complex to manage. However, in 2050, 87% of the world’s population will be concentrated in emerging countries, i.e. the poorest, where the adoption of such techniques is more problematic.

It is therefore clear that everything would by simpler if, by 2050, our food needs were less than those predicted. And there are three ways of achieving this.

Reducing food wastage

According to the FAO, around a third of the food produced around the world – something like 1 billion, 300 million tonnes per year – does not even reach the tables of its inhabitants.

Food is lost throughout its life cycle, from the producer right up to the consumer.

Even if, globally, there is as much food wasted in rich countries as in poor, there are nevertheless major differences between the two.

In poorer countries, wastage occurs primarily in the fields or during transport, storage and processing, through a lack of the necessary infrastructure: the food is damaged (by mice, rats, locusts and other insects) or rots (through a lack of hygiene or a cold chain) before even reaching the point of sale and the consumers. However, each individual consumer throws away only 6-11 kilos of food annually.

In rich countries, on the other hand, most losses occur at the point of sale or among consumers. Food is thrown away because it contains quantities of contaminants (such as agricultural chemicals or mycotoxins) which exceed legal limits; because the level of quality (even purely in terms of appearance) is not up to scratch; because, although still edible, it has gone past its best before date; because supermarkets prefer to keep shelves fully stocked, even if they know that some of the products will not be sold; because restaurants are unable to perfectly predict the food consumed. Lastly, a great deal of food is wasted at home: according to FAO estimations, between 95 and 115 kilos of food per person annually. In Italy, the most reliable estimations indicate that 8% of food purchased finishes in the bin, with a total value of between €7 and 9 billion every year.

Although the human cost of this waste is incalculable, the economic cost is estimated (excluding that of fish) at $750 billion per year: the GNP of Switzerland. The environmental cost is also shocking: to produce the food that is then wasted, 1.4 billion hectares of land is needed, which could otherwise be restored to natural ecosystems; 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is produced, exacerbating climate change; 250 cubic kilometres of water are wasted, in addition to the energy and technical resources used.

This waste is, obviously, a complex problem, and there are, therefore, no simple and immediate solutions: despite what we often hear, a little extra care and goodwill on the part of each of us is not enough. Yet we cannot fail to be struck by the fact that 222 million tonnes of food are thrown away every year in rich countries, a quantity almost equal to the total net production of food in Sub-Saharan Africa (where one person in four suffers from hunger), namely 230 million tonnes.

Better food means more sustainable food

Predictions about the increase in food production necessary to feed the human race in 2050 are also based on an increase in per capita consumption, which is expected to occur because more and more people are switching to a richer diet. This took place first in the most advanced countries and is nor occurring in emerging nations.

But we could reduce the quantity of food necessary in 2050 by also reducing the scale of this switch. A diet based on the consumption of a wide variety of plants, rather than meat, milk and derivatives, or industrial products excessively rich in fat and sugar, is actually less of a drain on resources and the environment. And there is huge room for improvement, both in terms of our health and the environment.

In addition to domestic waste, perhaps this is a also a field where each of us could do more. Even if there are some positive signs (even in the United States, consumption of meat fell by 10% between 2004 and 2012), a change of diet implies a change of culture, something notoriously slow and difficult to achieve. Whereas in emerging countries, it is far from easy to control people’s enthusiastic desire to escape from their ancestral hunger, we all find it hard to resist the offer of tasty and relatively cheap food. Knowing how to eat properly requires education, which is, once again, more difficult to implement among the poorer and less culturally advanced strata of society, who are, paradoxically, those who need it most. However, this solution remains a win-win proposition: both for human health and the environment.

Many traditional diets around the world are sustainable; we even already have one in Italy. The Mediterranean diet, based on the consumption of cereals, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and little meat, and the use of oil as a healthy fat, also promotes agricultural biodiversity and the richness of cultural traditions. What a shame so few people follow it.

Does food really need to go up in smoke?

Perhaps the simplest measure for increasing the availability of food and reducing the impact of agricultural production on the planet is to limit the use of biofuels. A growing proportion of crops – especially sugar cane, corn and rapeseed – are actually being transformed into ethanol and biodiesel for vehicles. This is a market created for political reasons (supporting particular categories of farmers) by means of economic incentives, which is growing nowadays because biofuels are considered a source of renewable energy, since the amount of carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere is equal to that bound by the plants from which they were extracted.

However, in this way land is removed from the production of food, which becomes ever more scarce and costly and therefore less available to the poorest people.

Between 2000 and 2010, the production of biofuels increased fivefold, and today almost 110 billion litres are produced (ethanol and biodiesel). The most advanced country in this field is the United States, where 40% of the corn produced is used to make 8% of the fuel consumed: yet if this corn were used as food, the availability of corn around the world would increase by 14%.

By 2020, China will raise the percentage of biofuels used in transport to 5%. Brazil, Japan, Indonesia and the European Union will raise it to 10%. The United States to 30%. Global production will thus rise by another 85 billion litres.

In 2020 13% of the overall production of corn, 15% of vegetable oils (rapeseed) and 30% of cane sugar will thus be used for the production of biofuels, removing no less than 35 million hectares of land from food production. And, according to the FAO, the increase in food prices will fluctuate from 15 to 40%.

In order to improve the sustainability of the energy and agricultural systems, the solution is to switch to second-generation biofuels, the raw material for which is not food, but agricultural waste, or even better third-generation biofuels, based on the growth of suitably modified algae and micro-organisms. However, we are still only taking our first steps in this field. Once again, much more research is necessary.

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