The following was published by James Murray, in BusinessGreen, 23 Feb 2009.
The world could easily feed its growing population if farmers, businesses and government’s simply stepped up efforts to curtail food waste, according to a major new study from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The report, which was published at last week’s meeting of the UNEP Governing Council in Nairobi, Kenya, warned that without “a green revolution” across the food industry the combination of population growth and climate change will lead to severe food shortages over the coming decades that could see food prices climb by between 30 and 50 per cent.
“We need a Green revolution in a Green Economy but one with a capital G”, said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “We need to deal with not only the way the world produces food but the way it is distributed, sold and consumed, and we need a revolution that can boost yields by working with rather than against nature.”
The report, entitled The Environmental Food crises: Environment’s role in averting future food crises, calls on food producers, businesses and governments to prioritise efforts to cut food waste as the most effective means of addressing future shortages.
It found that up to 50 per cent of food produced in the US is wasted, while a third of food purchased in the UK is never eaten. Meanwhile, food losses in developing world are similarly high with an estimated 20 to 40 per cent of potential harvests lost as a result o pests and pathogens.
Moreover, 30m tonnes of fish are reportedly discarded at sea each year – enough to sustain a 50 per cent increase in fish farming and aquaculture production, which the UNEP calculates is needed to maintain per capita fish consumption at current levels by 2050 without increasing pressure on an already stressed marine environment.
“Over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain,” said Steiner. “There is evidence within the report that the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet.”
The report calls for increased investment in agricultural R&D to help reduce waste during the production process, as well as increased efforts from government’s to cut consumer food waste.
In addition, to targeting food waste the report calls for an end to agricultural subsidies, curtailing of the practice of using cereals to feed livestock, increased investment in developing second generation biofuels that do not impact on food supplies and improved water management regimes in drought affected areas.
It also calls for wider adoption of organic farming methods, citing a recent report by UNEP and the UN Conference on Trade and Development which studied 114 small-scale farms in 24 African countries and found that yields more than doubled where organic or near organic techniques were used.
“Simply ratcheting up the fertilizer and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th Century is unlikely to address the challenge”, says Achim Steiner. “It will increasingly undermine the critical natural inputs and nature-based services for agriculture such as healthy and productive soils, the water and nutrient recycling of forests, and pollinators such as bees and bats.”
The report warned that unless its recommendations are adopted up to 25 per cent of the world’s food production could be lost by 2050 as a result of ” environmental breakdown”.
For example, it said that the retreat of Himalayan glaciers as a result of climate change could put nearly half of Asia’s cereal production at risk, while global water shortages could cut crop yields by 20 per cent.
In related news, UNEP released a second report which found that 40 per cent of civil wars fought since 1990 were a direct result of natural resource shortages, a situation that is likely to worsen as climate change accelerates.
It warned that conflicts with a link to natural resources were twice as likely to relapse within five years as conflicts fought for other reasons, and called on the UN to take environmental and resource issues more seriously in its post-conflict planning.