Farming Intensity = Food Security?

The term “global food crisis” was brought to our attention in 2008 when rapidly increasing food prices brought about a period of both social and political unrest in many countries across the globe.  The food system suddenly did not appear as stable as it had seemed; between 2006 and 2008, the market price for rice had risen by 217% and wheat by 136%.  Rapid population increases, the world financial crisis and extreme weather conditions (believed to be the effects of global warming) all had a massive knock-on effect on agricultural production.

Global Hunger Index

As is so often the case, the worst effects of the crisis were felt in the most vulnerable areas of the world.  In 2009, the Global Hunger Index reported that one billion people in the world were undernourished with the state in 29 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia being described as exceptionally critical.  Experts predict that by 2050, millions will face starvation as the prices of staple foods double.  This naturally leads to the question:

 

What can be done to ensure food security?


A logical answer would be to try and increase overall yields.

 

This has indeed been discussed by many: from increasing the intensity of agricultural production through to taking advantage of advances in genetically modified (GM) technology to introduce more hardy, bountiful crop varieties.  It has been argued that GM crops, when farmed intensively, could not only provide increased yields, but could provide crops fortified with essential vitamins and minerals. While the public-debate surrounding GM or so-called “Frankenstein” foods may not be as strong as it was 10 years ago, many environmentalists warn against the implementation of GM crops in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa claiming that their benefits are overstated. Worries still exist concerning the unknown long term risks of GM crops, how they could potentially affect gene flow and whether crops, engineered in the Northern hemisphere, can be adapted to areas such as Sub Saharan Africa. What’s more. Friends of the Earth have commented that GM crops cannot fulfill promises of increased yields and currently crops requiring less water or that are salt resistant only exist as expensive lab experiments.

 

Ethiopia - Traditional Konso Terracing

An increasingly common opinion in the sustainable development field is to focus on maintaining local biodiversity in order to achieve food security.  Intensive farming methods often result in the removal of competing crops, failing to replenish soil with nutrients which leads to the degradation of ecosystems.  This impacts essential resources such as biodiversity and the availability of clean water which consequently threaten human health and social stability. The effects of climate change only exacerbate the situation.  The UN sustainable knowledge platform emphasises these risks and recommends the implementation of sustainable land management.  With focus on smallholders, NGOs such as SOS Sahel have worked with local communities in Ethiopia to develop land management strategies, often based on traditional practices, using indigenous.crops.  Techniques such as mixing/rotating crop varieties naturally returns nutrients to the ground – sparing use of fertilizer – and water management have brought about significantly increased yields whilst ensuring that surrounding ecosystems are respected.  Furthermore it is claimed that this approach not only addresses issues surrounding food security, but also tackles other key areas such as animal welfare, improving rural economies.

While it would be wrong not to take advantage of new technologies in the face of a food shortage, caution should be taken.  People living at subsistence levels have no safe margin of error should things go wrong.  Any solution will be complex, however given the fragile nature of such borderline ecosystems, sustainable principles must be taken into consideration.

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