Global Food Systems: Feeding the World
Article first published online: 25 JUL 2012
© 2012 Blackwell Verlag GmbH
Reproduction in Domestic Animals
Special Issue: Proceedings of the 17th International Congress on Animal Reproduction (ICAR)
Volume 47, Issue Supplement s4, pages 77–79, August 2012
How to Cite
BeVier, G. (2012), Global Food Systems: Feeding the World. Reproduction in Domestic Animals, 47: 77–79. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0531.2012.02058.x
- Issue published online: 25 JUL 2012
- Article first published online: 25 JUL 2012
The global food system could be defined as the activities involved in producing, processing and distributing food to feed the world; it links national and local food systems on a global scale through trade, technology, knowledge sharing, and labor and capital exchange. For over 10 000 years, it has evolved from the primitive utilization of vegetative plants and livestock domestication to the large scale, precision farming operations of industrialized agriculture currently in operation. Although important innovations have scaled this system to cover an exponentially increasing population and to reduce hunger and malnutrition, participation in, access to, and benefits of today’s global food system remain elusive to the 80% of the world earning <$10 per day. It is indeed shocking to consider that over one billion people are food-insecure and will go to bed hungry every night in 2011. This is equivalent to the population of the United States, the European Union, and Canada combined.
Despite increasing yields, the global food system has failed to make the world food secure, a state characterized by food availability, food accessibility, food utilization, and food stability. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization and other groups that track the points along the food value chain, note that we produce enough food on a global level to feed everyone; the failure lies in access and distribution. All lives should have equal value and in some manner, we should all feel accountable to rectify this tragic inequity amongst humanity.
Understanding the global food system, how to improve upon it, and how best to prepare the human resource capacity to provide services within it, will require a background review of some of the key drivers for change.
Global Food Value Chain
Key drivers of change
- 1Climate Change: Climate change and its future impact will become one of the most important rate-limiting aspects for growth of agriculture productivity. The entire agriculture system needs to plan and adapt to changes in growing season, temperature, and extreme weather events. Its impact on water access and availability will be profound; in the future, we may value water as we currently value petroleum. Crop and livestock agriculture are heavy users of fresh water resources, drawing on an estimated 70% of all freshwater resources worldwide.
- 2Energy: The price of and availability of energy is an important input for successful agriculture production. Based on current supply and demand trends, energy prices will continue to rise as we draw down the limited supply of hydrocarbon-based fuels to meet our energy needs. Although biofuels can temporarily supplement our energy needs, converting crops into fuel diverts food resources from the global supply chain, exacerbating food shortages and driving up food prices; subsequently, biofuels are likely not a long-term solution. With such heavy dependence on fossil fuels, energy is an ever-present rate-limiter, from mechanization to highly integrated dairy herds to the need for cold chain or pasteurization to chemical fertilizer production, which alone counts for 70% of agricultural-related energy consumption in the less-developed world.
- 3Natural resource mismanagement: Ecosystem health and environmental degradation will continue to be critical roadblocks to a flourishing global food system. Less than 3% of our land and water can provide the substrate required which supports our terrestrial- and aqua-based food system, and we annually lose significant quantities of that due to poor resource management of watersheds, fisheries, soils, and forests. Each year, approximately 5–10 million hectares of arable land become unusable due to severe soil degradation caused predominately by deforestation, overgrazing, and bad agricultural practices, and another 0.3–1.5 million hectares become unproductive due to salinization and water logging; not surprisingly, two-thirds of degraded land is located in South Asia and Africa, where the majority of the world’s food insecure live. Serious attention needs to be directed to restoring these ecosystems, creating/enforcing appropriate policies, and educating farmers on proper integrated farming techniques.
- 4Human health & safety: The health and safety of our ecosystem (plants, livestock, wildlife, and marine life) are closely associated with human health. The areas of One Health, Food Safety, and Food Security are all imbedded within this concept. A major issue that needs to be addressed is the improper use of pesticides, which can have a serious adverse affect on human health as well as the health of soils, watersheds, and wild and domestic animal systems. The rate of pesticide use has risen by 42 times over the last 50 years to its current amount of over 2.5 million tons/year, costing $35B. This is unsustainable and alternate pest management systems will be crucial for the future of our global food system.
- 5Population growth: Population growth will add an estimated 3 billion people to the planet over the next 40 years; most of this growth will occur in developing countries that are already struggling to feed their populations and where the added population pressure will push the poor even further onto marginalized land and into urban areas, which are expected to double in size by 2050. Consequentially, we urgently need to double food production without causing further harm to the environment and to increase access to food for those who need it most. The global food system will also need to adapt to the changing consumption patterns and dietary demands of a growing global middle class.
- 6Policy and governance: Long-term progress will not happen without strong policies and national and international governance structures that are designed to make the world food secure in an environmentally sound, sustainable way. As mentioned earlier, current production levels are adequate to meet global food requirements. The responsibility for food insecurity and a degraded system lies with the absence of good governance. This is reflected by the lack of international cooperation in trade and agricultural policies and the lack of appropriate investments in infrastructure, markets, and technologies. A similarly important driver of change is development of an international regulatory framework to which all countries trading within the global food system would need to adhere. The tough regulatory standards in the developed world have provided an important tool to assure safe food and environmental standards as technology is adopted. However, the less-developed world has suffered from poor policy and advocacy standards as well as corruption and poor quality products. Without compliance to strict international regulations, the developing world will never be a major contributor to the global food system.
- 7Market access: In the developed world, market access for agriculture products has been greatly facilitated by trade integration and access to information. The developed world has managed to create a 24/7 virtual farm, so that people in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter can enjoy fresh fruit from Chile. Information and access to real-time global market prices has helped facilitate an efficient distribution system. People in the developed world can enjoy fresh food at a cost of approximately12–15% of their income. Unfortunately, due to poverty and lack of technical innovation, people in less-developed countries pay as much as 80% of their income for food. It is no wonder that the cycle of poverty continues! A wealthy person can face many problems, but a hungry person faces one problem.
- 8Integration of Global Food Systems: The scalability and integration of larger food systems can reduce unit costs as well as decrease risk by having control over many parts of the global food value chain. Farmer cooperatives represent a good example of the collaboration which can occur when individuals realize the power of working together. This integration can be taken to an extreme, as many food value chains are now operated by major multi-national companies. For example, the top five food retailers account for 56% of all food sales in the USA. In that regard, Wal–Mart alone represents almost 25% of total sales.
- 9Technology: The role of technology and innovation is a key tool, as well as a source of optimism to provide the changes needed to improve the global food system. The best example of this would be the advent of the Green Revolution at the end of the last century. Through leaders like Dr. Borlaug, poverty was reduced by 20% over a 20-year interval by improved plant seeds capable of increasing crop yields/hectare. Another is that chickens in Kenya produce approximately 40 eggs per year, whereas chickens in the developed world produce 220 per year. Big investments are needed, as existing technologies are insufficient to meet the future demands on the global food system. However, even outside of big research investments, there are great opportunities when one considers that the developing world is technology poor and there are big potential gains through basic knowledge and technology transfer to farmers who mostly operate without much training and very little if any equipment. Technology is not necessarily an easy fix and food chains must also be cognizant of the public’s perception and controversy around issues such as genetically modified organisms, animal welfare, cloning, and other technical advancements which are seen as outside the domain of ‘natural’. I believe that if we can focus innovation on consumer needs and not just on the agronomic aspects of improvements, it will go a long way towards addressing this controversy. There should be a balance between technology adoption and natural food production, instead of an ‘either/or’ debate. A book describing this balance is Tomorrow’s Table written by Dr. Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak.
- 10Human Capacity: The last driver I would mention relates to development of the human capacity (leaders) to help us think about the drivers mentioned above. In addition, these emerging leaders will need to consider responsibly how best to apply innovation to improve the global food system. Currently, two-thirds of the labor force in the less-developed world is focused on farming and livestock; this is in stark contrast to the <1% of the population in the developed world working in agriculture. In this light, there is not a true global food system, but rather a mix of systems that we need to understand more clearly.
A global food system is not just about the food value chain, but also about the people who exist at each point. Although the global food system will most likely fail without sustainable management of natural resources, that alone is insufficient; a sustainable global food system must also meet people’s needs now and continue to meet them in the future. The recent economic downturn has illustrated that the current system is very sensitive, creating high food costs, as well as shortages of food that predominately hurt the poorest of the poor. We have now surpassed 1 billion people living with food insecurity, and ironically at the same time, we now have 1 billion people who are obese and must deal with the disease implications and concomitant medical care costs associated with both of these problems. Transgenic models of human diseases and conditions, or biotechnological advancements for the treatment or cure of human disease would have an impact on improving quality of life throughout the world. The problem is improving the distribution of the results of these scientific advancements throughout all demographics of society.
Approximately 80% of the people in the world make <$10 per day and approximately 40% make <$2 per day. Livestock improvement can represent an important pathway out of poverty, since two-thirds of the poorest people own animals. At these low levels of daily income, traditional products and services for livestock are simply not available or are too costly. The less developed world relies on sustainable productivity improvement of livestock (e.g. more eggs per bird, milk per cow or meat per animal) as a means to increase their income. Biotechnology will provide the mechanism to make the leap changes required for the less developed world. Traditional village chickens in many parts of Africa produce 40 eggs per year, yet chickens in the developed world can produce more than fivefold that number. Indigenous dairy cows in Africa produce 4 l/day of milk, yet in the developed world, cows can produce more than sixfold that amount. I do not believe that we can continue to progress livestock productivity improvement in the less developed world by making 2% annual changes. The income and food security needs of the less developed are important gaps that need to be closed quickly, given that the projections are for 9 billion people on Earth by the year 2050. Genetics, reproduction and health technologies are highly leveraged interventions, in that they can achieve scale in ways similar to crops. Scientific advancements in these areas and tailored to use for poor farmers in the less developed world will certainly alleviate the human suffering we have today. For example, biotechnological advancements, such as inherent disease resistance, would enhance sustainable food and fiber production in the third world countries, if those technologies can be transferred in a viable way from developmental stages into core animal production around the world. That could be a daunting task to integrate these advancements in a third world application. The Gates Foundation has funded work on avian stem cells for this very reason. For example, Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV) is the biggest avian disease in Africa, with almost 80% mortality of affected birds. There are some very good vaccines for NDV, but delivery and cold chain in the less developed world is a big problem. If we had birds with a natural resistance to NDV, then we would not need to worry about the vaccine delivery system. The genetic delivery system, via hatcheries, is an easier route for dissemination.
In summary, the International Conference on Animal Reproduction has brought together some of the brightest minds in the world to discuss the dual contribution of animals as nutritious food for people, as well as, as illustrated in this plenary session, their use to advance medicine. The biomedical component of animal research will certainly provide enormous improvements in the quality of human life. The productivity enhancement of livestock will most certainly advance people out of poverty, as well as to provide a source of nutrition to feed a growing population. Our challenge will be to combine these efforts in a manner which is deemed acceptable by society. We must all be cognizant of the powerful tools we are using and deploy them with full transparency and understanding that the consumer is our boss.