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Food Security: Rethinking The Agricultural Revolution

Food Security: Rethinking The Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural, or Neolithic (New-Stone Age) Revolution , marks the birth of modern civilization. Traditional wisdom says that is when we started to become us. That is when we began to grow crops, build cities, develop trade routes, practice specialized crafts and skills, and start the process of becoming the fully evolved species that we have become. That is when we began to move away from being primitive, perhaps even brutish, hunter gatherers who lived on a subsistence diet, constantly on the brink of starvation. That is when we began to conquer and subdue our environment. It was the beginning of a time of great progress and enlightenment. Or was it?

Detail of a miniature of a man ploughing with oxen. Image taken from Bestiary. Written in Latin and French. (Public Domain )

Which Came First Building Or Agriculture?

Is it time to re-examine what we have all been taught for so long that it is now fully ingrained in our thinking to the point where we scarcely question it anymore? Dare we re-examine such a basic, underlying “fact” of anthropological history? And, to take the idea one step further, did the Agricultural Revolution represent a step forward in our evolution, or was it instead a detriment — a dead end path that, so far at least, has kept us from our real goal of becoming fully evolved, spiritual beings?

This is a radical, but increasingly important, way of thinking that is gathering momentum among serious academics who are increasingly worried about out-of-control population growth. The current, traditional, and generally accepted academic opinion states: When our ancestors joined together to build great megalithic complexes around the world, such as Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia, Eridu, Uruk, and Ur in Mesopotamia, Luoyang on China’s central plain, and other ancient cities in various eras, they needed to provide a stable food supply for what soon became a burgeoning population. The debate continues as to which came first, building or agriculture. In other words, did the development of agriculture lead to a sedentary population who soon graduated to an urban civilization ? Or did urban civilization create the necessity of agriculture?

From the royal tombs of Ur, the Standard of Ur mosaic, made of lapis lazuli and shell, shows peacetime.

Most academics are inclined to theorize the former, rather than the latter, explanation. It seems logical to assume that the change to large-scale agriculture led to the growth of cities. But it is important to remember that this became the accepted theory because it seems logical , not because it is necessarily deduced from the archaeological record.

Chapter 2. Food security: concepts and measurement [21]

This chapter looks at the origins of the concept of chronic food insecurity, the implications for measurement, and suggests the need for a complementary investigation into the implications for transitory food insecurity of trade liberalization. The 2002 food crisis in Southern Africa is used to highlight issues for further discussion.

2.2 Defining food security

Food security is a flexible concept as reflected in the many attempts at definition in research and policy usage. Even a decade ago, there were about 200 definitions in published writings [22] .Whenever the concept is introduced in the title of a study or its objectives, it is necessary to look closely to establish the explicit or implied definition [23] .

The continuing evolution of food security as an operational concept in public policy has reflected the wider recognition of the complexities of the technical and policy issues involved. The most recent careful redefinition of food security is that negotiated in the process of international consultation leading to the World Food Summit (WFS) in November 1996. The contrasting definitions of food security adopted in 1974 and 1996, along with those in official FAO and World Bank documents of the mid-1980s, are set out below with each substantive change in definition underlined. A comparison of these definitions highlights the considerable reconstruction of official thinking on food security that has occurred over 25 years. These statements also provide signposts to the policy analyses, which have re-shaped our understanding of food security as a problem of international and national responsibility.

Food security as a concept originated only in the mid-1970s, in the discussions of international food problems at a time of global food crisis. The initial focus of attention was primarily on food supply problems - of assuring the availability and to some degree the price stability of basic foodstuffs at the international and national level. That supply-side, international and institutional set of concerns reflected the changing organization of the global food economy that had precipitated the crisis. A process of international negotiation followed, leading to the World Food Conference of 1974, and a new set of institutional arrangements covering information, resources for promoting food security and forums for dialogue on policy issues [24] .

The issues of famine, hunger and food crisis were also being extensively examined, following the events of the mid 1970s. The outcome was a redefinition of food security, which recognized that the behaviour of potentially vulnerable and affected people was a critical aspect.

A third, perhaps crucially important, factor in modifying views of food security was the evidence that the technical successes of the Green Revolution did not automatically and rapidly lead to dramatic reductions in poverty and levels of malnutrition. These problems were recognized as the result of lack of effective demand.

Official concepts of food security

The initial focus, reflecting the global concerns of 1974, was on the volume and stability of food supplies. Food security was defined in the 1974 World Food Summit as:

“availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices” [25] .

In 1983, FAO expanded its concept to include securing access by vulnerable people to available supplies, implying that attention should be balanced between the demand and supply side of the food security equation:

“ensuring that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the basic food that they need” [26] .

In 1986, the highly influential World Bank report “Poverty and Hunger” [27] focused on the temporal dynamics of food insecurity. It introduced the widely accepted distinction between chronic food insecurity, associated with problems of continuing or structural poverty and low incomes, and transitory food insecurity, which involved periods of intensified pressure caused by natural disasters, economic collapse or conflict. This concept of food security is further elaborated in terms of:

“access of all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life” .

By the mid-1990s food security was recognized as a significant concern, spanning a spectrum from the individual to the global level. However, access now involved sufficient food, indicating continuing concern with protein-energy malnutrition. But the definition was broadened to incorporate food safety and also nutritional balance, reflecting concerns about food composition and minor nutrient requirements for an active and healthy life. Food preferences, socially or culturally determined, now became a consideration. The potentially high degree of context specificity implies that the concept had both lost its simplicity and was not itself a goal, but an intermediating set of actions that contribute to an active and healthy life.

The 1994 UNDP Human Development Report promoted the construct of human security, including a number of component aspects, of which food security was only one [28] . This concept is closely related to the human rights perspective on development that has, in turn, influenced discussions about food security. (The WIDER investigation into the role of public action into combating hunger and deprivation, found no separate place for food security as an organizing framework for action. Instead, it focused on a wider construct of social security which has many distinct components including, of course, health and nutrition [29] ).

The 1996 World Food Summit adopted a still more complex definition:

“Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. [30]

This definition is again refined in The State of Food Insecurity 2001:

“Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” [31] .

This new emphasis on consumption, the demand side and the issues of access by vulnerable people to food, is most closely identified with the seminal study by Amartya Sen [32] . Eschewing the use of the concept of food security, he focuses on the entitlements of individuals and households.

The international community has accepted these increasingly broad statements of common goals and implied responsibilities. But its practical response has been to focus on narrower, simpler objectives around which to organize international and national public action. The declared primary objective in international development policy discourse is increasingly the reduction and elimination of poverty. The 1996 WFS exemplified this direction of policy by making the primary objective of international action on food security halving of the number of hungry or undernourished people by 2015.

Essentially, food security can be described as a phenomenon relating to individuals. It is the nutritional status of the individual household member that is the ultimate focus, and the risk of that adequate status not being achieved or becoming undermined. The latter risk describes the vulnerability of individuals in this context. As the definitions reviewed above imply, vulnerability may occur both as a chronic and transitory phenomenon. Useful working definitions are described below.

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Household food security is the application of this concept to the family level, with individuals within households as the focus of concern.

Food insecurity exists when people do not have adequate physical, social or economic access to food as defined above.

Household measurements: the focus on chronic hunger and poverty

Sub-nutrition, often assumed in official literature to be synonymous with the more emotive term hunger, is the result of food intake that is continuously insufficient to meet dietary energy requirements.

Measurement is typically indirect and based on food balance sheets and national income distribution and consumer expenditure data. Linking hunger and sub-nutrition with inadequate food intake allows the measurement of food insecurity in terms of the availability and apparent consumption of staple foods or energy intake [33] . This type of measurement corresponds to the earlier narrower definitions of chronic food insecurity [34] .

Where international cross-sectional and national time series comparisons are undertaken, as in SOFI 2001, national estimates are based on average per capita availability of staple foods, or apparent consumption. The estimates may also be weighted by evidence of food expenditure by income categories for countries where consumer expenditure surveys are not available. Because poverty lines, such as those calculated by the World Bank, also reflect assumptions about dietary energy intake, there is inevitably a high degree of correlation in these cases with estimates of poverty and extreme poverty [35] .

The international comparison of country estimates of chronic food insecurity therefore reflect cross-sectional patterns and trends in food production, supplemented by what is recorded about trade in basic foodstuffs (effectively cereals) as incorporated into national food balance sheets. These comparisons show broad differences in food security between the development categories of low, middle and upper income countries, as well as considerable variance within categories.

Attempts to explain these differences within categories, and in changes over time in the incidence of sub-nutrition, have met with limited success. SOFI 2001 notes that groups of variables that reflect shocks and agricultural productivity growth are significant influences in explaining periodic differences in country performance but concludes: “. attempts to seek one simple cause for either good or bad performance are not very useful. The power of just a few variables to explain changes in highly diverse, and indeed unique national situations is limited” [36] .

The factors that underpin this form of statistical investigation include the association of a single dependent variable to represent chronic food insecurity, with proxy variables for differences amongst countries and changes in agricultural trade regime. However, these are not suitable for studying trade and food security.

The problem of unreliable data on production and unrecorded trade is unavoidable, but may be serious for many of the most food insecure countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The current crisis in Southern Africa highlights this issue. Malawi appears to have been one of the twelve best-performing countries since the early 1990s in improving food security [37] . However, there is currently much debate about the reliability of food production data, particularly for roots and tubers in this country. Trends for countries in which these are important staples, especially in subsistence, and comparisons between these and other countries are a source of ambiguity.

An important intra-country gap exists in current analyses of food insecurity, which focus on national level or the individual level, as reflected either in averages derived as ratios of national aggregates or a national survey estimate. That gap is most apparent for larger countries such as Brazil, India, Nigeria or the Russian Federation. Substantial intra-country regional or zonal differences in the structure and dynamics of food security are also likely - for example, as a result of more rapid agricultural development in the Punjab and Haryana States in India or temporarily because of drought in Northern Nigeria. The trends in food security, as in poverty, may not be fully evident at a national level. Therefore, an investigation of a process such as trade liberalization that involves cross-country comparisons should be sensitive to possibly important variability within larger economies. This implies the need for regional analyses to complement country level investigations. The case study of Guatemala illustrates the intra-country dimension missing from national food security assessments [38] .

The definition of sub-nutrition includes poor absorption and/or poor biological use of nutrients consumed. The most convenient assumption for an agricultural economic analysis would be to ignore these factors. However, and again the current crisis in Southern Africa serves as a reminder, there may be significant differences between countries in these factors and the way they are changing. The deteriorating health situation in Southern Africa may be eroding nutritional status, not only with the recrudescence of malaria and tuberculosis, but most evidently because of the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, with an incidence of 25 percent and more amongst the economically active adult population. People may become more vulnerable, and so the economy more fragile and sensitive to ever-smaller shocks. This is also a reason for reassessing the importance of transitory, acute food insecurity.

2.3 The process of liberalization and transitory food insecurity

Policy statements on food security give less and less prominence to transitory food insecurity and the risks of acute food crisis. The frequently reiterated assurance that there is globally enough food to feed everyone is supported, moreover, by the success in limiting the impact of the Southern Africa drought crisis of 1991/92. Such considerations may even suggest that the risk of a natural disaster, an economic shock or a humanitarian problem resulting in a severe food crisis is diminishing. Before accepting that comfortable conclusion, it is appropriate to re-examine the issue of transitory food insecurity and the possible links with liberalization.

According to the World Bank, in 1986 “The major sources of transitory food insecurity are year-to-year variations in international food prices, foreign exchange earnings, domestic food production and household incomes. These are often related. Temporary sharp reductions in a population’s ability to produce or purchase food and other essentials undermine long term development and cause loss of human capital from which it takes years to recover” [39] .

Since that report, evidence that natural disasters and conflict have both severe short-term and persisting long-term negative effects has accumulated. The analysis is usually restated in terms of poverty rather than food security, as in the 2000/01 World Development Report.

It is possible that liberalization increases the risk of shock that precipitates a food crisis or makes populations, at least during the transition in trade regimes, more vulnerable. International grain markets were more volatile in the 1990s than since the crisis period of the early 1970s. Some commentators have asked whether this volatility is associated with regime changes linked to the Uruguay Round (UR) [40] . Tropical commodity export prices are performing badly, apparently still following the long-run Prebisch-Singer downward trend.

At a national level, agricultural liberalization could also be associated with increased volatility in production and prices. Maize yields, maize production and other agricultural products appear to have been more volatile since around 1988/89 when there have been considerable changes in agricultural institutions. Simple Chow tests show that in some countries, notably Malawi and Zambia, agricultural performance was significantly more variable in the 1990s than previously.

Other influences, such as climate change, also affect agricultural performance. Although as yet there is no conclusive evidence for Africa or elsewhere that climatic variability and the occurrence of extreme events such as drought, flood and storms, have increased significantly, nevertheless, global models suggest that such changes in climatic variability are likely to occur. As already noted, deterioration in the health status could make populations more vulnerable to less extreme shocks.

It is also possible that the current crisis in Southern Africa is the consequence of a combination of all these developments.

2.4 Conclusion: a multi-dimensional phenomenon

Food security is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. National and international political action seems to require the identification of simple deficits that can be the basis for setting of targets, thus necessitating the adoption of single, simplistic indicators for policy analysis. Something like the “State of global food insecurity” analysis has to be undertaken. Since food insecurity is about risks and uncertainty, the formal analysis should include both chronic sub-nutrition and transitory, acute insecurity that reflects economic and food system volatility.

Such formal exploration is usefully complemented by multi-criteria analysis (MCA) of food security. This should lead to qualitative, if not quantitative, comparisons. Where the focus of investigation is on sub-nutrition, then the linkages between sub-nutrition and inadequate food intake need to be carefully explored. Some elements that need to be considered are:

sources of dietary energy supply - taking account, for example, of different foods, trends in the acquisition of food from subsistence to marketing

climatic variability as a source of volatility and short-term nutritional stress

health status, especially changes in the incidence of communicable diseases, most obviously HIV/AIDS

spatial distribution within countries of poverty and forms of food insecurity, drawing on evidence from vulnerability assessment and mapping supported by the Food Information and Vulnerability Mapping Systems (FIVIMS), the FAO and the World Food Programme (WFP) interagency initiative.

It is sometimes suggested that there should be more practical use of Sen’s entitlement theory (see Chapter 1). If this were to involve the re-labelling of indicators of food needs as entitlements, it would be less useful than, for example, reflecting entitlement failure in a formal MCA.

Entitlement as a construct introduces an ethical and human rights dimension into the discussion of food security. There has been a tendency to give food security a too narrow definition, little more than a proxy for chronic poverty. The opposite tendency is international committees negotiating an all-encompassing definition, which ensures that the concept is morally unimpeachable and politically acceptable, but unrealistically broad. As the philosopher, Onora O’Neill, recently noted:

“It can be mockery to tell someone they have the right to food when there is nobody with the duty to provide them with food. That is the risk with the rights rhetoric. What I like about choosing the counterpart, the active obligation of duties rather than the rights, you can’t go on and on without addressing the question who has to do what, for whom, when” [41] .

Local food and global food security

Global food insecurity is a relentless issue, and upwards of 820 million people worldwide experience it.

Today, as with the rest of the economy, food is grown and distributed all around the world. Chickens are raised in one country and processed in another, vegetables travel thousands of miles to consumers and dairy products are transported across oceans.

In some ways, this global food market has increased food availability in certain communities. But unfortunately, it has also decreased the resiliency of communities to rely on their own food.

Global food insecurity is not due to not producing enough food, but rather poor distribution methods. With the number of calories generated by industrial agriculture, there is seemingly no reason anyone would go hungry.

But distribution issues — often exacerbated by social problems like war or poverty — are almost always to blame.

A global food system has attempted to and fallen short of addressing global food insecurity. An unnecessary percentage of farmed land is not devoted to food grown for human consumption, and the global food system allows for a significant amount of waste in processing and packaging.

Building more resilient local food systems is key to addressing global food insecurity. Local food systems make communities more resilient, climate adaptive and more sustainable in the long term.

Today, most of the United States population lives in urban areas. Most individuals rely on food that is grown hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Most people associate food with a grocery store, not a farm.


While it is a feat of modern technology and machinery that we can transport and process food over such a long distance, it leaves large populations of people at risk if anything were to disrupt the system.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic left people anxious about grocery shopping, leading many households to stockpile necessary items. On the other hand, restaurants and other eateries shut down , leaving a huge imbalance between supply and demand.

Viral images of dairy farmers dumping milk and vegetables rotting in fields while people in cities stood in line at food pantries has raised awareness of how susceptible our current food system is to disruption.

Transitioning to a more local food system means that communities are more involved in where they get their food, leading to more conscientious, healthy societies.

Agricultural innovations like hydroponics are reinventing how we grow food and making it much easier to grow fresh produce without much land. This technology is successfully employed in dense urban areas, providing fresh vegetables for local communities.

A more localized food economy creates a more resilient community — one that can produce enough calories to withstand system disruptions that may impact larger supply chains. Instead of waiting at the grocery store to stock up, communities can harvest food from their own backyards.

The global economy as we know it relies heavily on fossil fuels. Without fossil fuels, the global economy would not exist. People travel around the world for their jobs, and so do most goods, services and other products.

The global food system relies on farmers who produce grain and soy in the United States to feed livestock in China. In the face of climate change, this system is not built to last.

While global food insecurity has decreased drastically in the last century, scientists predict that numbers will rise significantly in the next couple of decades, primarily due to climate change. Climate change is affecting how farmers grow food, where they can grow it, and what resources are required.

For example, after a couple years of abnormally wet seasons, desert locusts are plaguing the Horn of Africa. Their appearance links to a changing climate, with extreme weather patterns wreaking havoc on the environment.


According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association, desert locusts threaten 10 percent of the world's population with food insecurity and economic depression.

Other weather events, such as above-average temperatures and droughts, affect what crops can be grown and whether they are harvestable.

Food production and distribution will need to change in response to climate change. Shifting to a more local model decreases greenhouse gas emissions, reduces agricultural dependence on fossil fuels and increases the stability of local environments to grow their own food despite changing climates.

Global food insecurity threatens millions of people around the world, and the effects of climate change are only expected to make the situation worse. The current global food system relies heavily on fossil fuel usage.

Farmers are no longer growing product to sell to their local communities, but instead distributing it to be sold on the other side of the world. This setup creates an unsustainable system for both the grower and consumer.

Transitioning to a more localized food system could be imperative in the next few decades. As communities look for alternative ways to support themselves, many will find new innovations that allow them to be more resilient.

Governments and businesses will shift toward more climate adaptive practices, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making supply chain routes more environmentally friendly.

A local food system doesn't mean growing a few vegetables for the neighborhood. It means completely rethinking how we approach agriculture, our diets and our food's origins. Moving toward a more local food system creates a more resilient, climate adaptive and sustainable community.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it's that where our food comes from matters. People around the world suffer from food insecurity, most often due to distribution issues, not production. Building a food system that supports local producers would create a more sustainable supply chain, especially in the event of climate disaster.

The mantra for the last few decades has been that a more industrialized agricultural system will decrease food insecurity. But so far, conventional methods have only increased the disparity between populations. A more local food system will be necessary for the transition away from fossil fuels and will contribute to a more sustainable economy in the long term.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks .

The Evidence: The Bushmen of the Kalahari Could Gather Enough Mongongo Nuts to Survive in 2-1/2 Days a Week

One very important line of evidence for the leisured hunter-gatherer thesis came from research carried out on the !Kung San, hunter gatherers in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, by Richard B. Lee in the early 1960s. It was much discussed at an important conference, Man the Hunter, held shortly thereafter.

The Bushmen had a “work week . . . of 2.4 days per adult,” Lee claimed in The !Kung San. Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society, 1979, chapter 9 (link to relevant chapter), 250-280.

He continued, the bushmen “appeared to enjoy more leisure time than the members of many agricultural and industrial societies.”

The Forgotten History of Food Security in Multilateral Trade Negotiations

Food security emerged as a major source of political deadlock in the WTO Doha Round negotiations. Concerns about food security only intensified at the WTO following the 2008 Global Food Crisis, with the Bali and Nairobi Ministerials revealing polarized views between the US and India on the financing of public food stockholding. These ‘food fights’ at the WTO have attracted significant international media, civil society, and scholarly attention. In this article, I argue that inter-state disagreement on food security is not new or specific to the Doha Round but instead has been a recurrent phenomenon in the multilateral trade system for decades. Employing an historical approach, I show that food security has repeatedly been an item of negotiation in successive GATT negotiating rounds and has been steadily codified in international trade law over time. Today, food security is deeply integrated into the rules of the trade regime, making the WTO an important yet largely unacknowledged institution in global food security governance.


We have highlighted current technological advances in the field of plant science and novel and emerging approaches to re-engineer crops that could potentially lead to innovations in agriculture that benefit food security. This area of research could not be more exciting for scientists and not be more relevant for humankind given the challenge we face to increase yield. To feed the future global population in a sustainable way without occupying more arable land and in the face of unprecedented changes in global climate, will draw on diverse, creative skills and innovative approaches, and require combining these efforts at all levels in order to achieve a Golden Revolution in agriculture.

Food Security: Rethinking The Agricultural Revolution - History

The exponential rise of the global meat industry has left much of the world in a state of food insecurity. The consumption of meat products has closely mirrored population growth and is predicted to double by the year 2050 (FAO 2009). Currently, two thirds of all farmlands are used to produce meat, and developed countries have the highest meat consumption per capita. However, if the whole world were to equally consume meat products, we would need to farm nearly three-quarters more land (FAO 2009). While the production of livestock offers livelihood for millions of workers, the unsustainable nature of intensive agriculture is negatively impacting the Earth. The environmental damage that meat production causes to both local and surrounding lands reduces the likelihood of a long-term and sustainable supply of meat. This essay will outline how the environmental impacts of the global meat industry negatively affect food security emphasizing green house gas emissions, the overuse of freshwater supplies and the effects of soil erosion on crop yields.

The massive growth potential for the meat industry is driven by a number of factors. Firstly, the economic progression of developing countries boosts the demand for meat products (Ghosh and Guven 2006). Experts note that there is a correlation between people with money and an increased consumption of meat. Resultantly, as the middle-class expands, the demand for cheap protein increases (Ghosh and Guven 2006). This is also noted in developed countries. For example, meat suppliers from Australia are struggling to keep up with Chinese demands that have been fueled by a rapid increase in Chinese national income (FAO 2009). Secondly, population growth quite clearly influences the global demand for meat products. The United Nations projects the world population to grow slightly beyond 8.92 billion individuals by the year 2050 and then peak at 9.22 billion in 2075 (FAO 2009). With an additional two billion people to support and feed, the meat industry will see increasing pressure to expand farmlands and maximize output (Brown 2004). The rising global demand for meat products exceeds the Earth’s environmentally sustainable limits (Cousins and Pirages 2005). This leaves current and future generations in a state of food insecurity.

Harmful Emissions Threaten Crop Yields

Traditional, small-scale methods of farming are disappearing rapidly around the world. Industrialized meat factories now produce over half of the world’s pork supply, two-thirds of the eggs, and three-quarters of the poultry (Lal 2004). However, heavy concentrations of livestock have a much greater environmental impact than farms with free-roaming animals. While it is easy to highlight the greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, coal-generated electric power and even cement factories meat production often goes under the radar. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reports that meat production releases more carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane gas into the atmosphere than both transportation and industry (FAO 2009). In fact, the same amounts of greenhouse gases are released from driving a three thousand pound car nearly ten miles as when producing the meat for just one hamburger (Lal 2004). The negative impacts of these consumption patterns are estimated to increase with demand.

Concentrated animal feeding operations are multidimensional, allowing greenhouse gas emissions to accumulate from a number of different sources (Goffman 2012). In order to determine the major emissions produced during meat production, the off-site contributions must also be measured. These contributions include transportation fuels, industrial processes, waste disposals, fossil fuel processing and power stations. Accumulatively, these activities are responsible for nearly 63% of the meat industry’s total emissions (Goffman 2012). Nitrous oxide and methane are the primary gases released in agriculture (Goffman 2012). Methane is a very potent, short-lived greenhouse gas that has the global warming potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide (Jouany et al 2000). Livestock contribute methane into the atmosphere through natural digestive processes. Therefore, harmful gases in the soil and livestock manure account for the remaining 27% of emissions (Goffman 2012). Pasture-fed cattle produce significantly higher levels of methane gas than cereal-fed cattle. Resultantly, factory style cattle productions that rely on cereal-based diets contribute more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere rather than methane (Goffman 2012). Together, these emissions make industrialized meat production one of the largest contributors to atmospheric greenhouse gasses.

Atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions will affect food security in two distinct ways. Firstly, greenhouse gases contribute to global warming and climate change. While most industrial meat producers rely on cereal crops for livestock feed, the success of these crops is crucial to the meat industry (Van der Werf and Peterson 2009). However, climate change often results in crop inconsistencies due to decreased soil quality, a lack of water resources, and erratic flood and drought cycles (Hamerschlag 2001). If crop yields are threatened under the changing climate, the future for meat production is insecure. Secondly, many (but not all) climate policies in agriculture result in increased production and transportation costs for farmers (Hertel 2009). The implementation of a carbon tax on production-related emissions threatens the livelihood of many agriculturalists. Unless these producers are compensated for their emission tax expenses, developing and rural farms will suffer financially (Van der Werf and Peterson 2009). Unfortunately, policy makers often struggle to implement plans without damaging farmer livelihood and therefore, food security. As a result, a number of mass-production farms may close under financial pressures unless otherwise addressed (Van der Werf and Peterson 2009). Overall, the release of harmful greenhouse gases from the meat industry will negatively impact the future state of food security.

Agricultural Irrigation Overuses Freshwater Supplies

Food security is also threatened by the overuse of freshwater for irrigation. Many freshwater reserves are being rapidly depleted to support the demands of industrialized meat production. In the United States, livestock farms utilize over half of the freshwater available for any use (Boer and Vries 2010). Additionally, more water is needed to sustain these factories than any other form of agriculture. For example, it takes 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat. However, producing one pound of beef requires 2,400 gallons (Amosson et al 2011). For example, the rapid decline of groundwater in the Texas high plains emphasizes the overuse of freshwater for irrigation. The Ogallala Aquifer is a non-renewable groundwater source that supplies water to 2.5 million acres of irrigated croplands (Amosson et al 2011) . This region is the leading producer of livestock feed in the nation. Since the development of the irrigation system in the 1940’s, the aquifer has since been pumped beyond the point of natural recharge (Amosson et al 2011) . As a result, the Southern High Plains have experienced reduced irrigation well yields and steep declines in groundwater reserves. It is estimated that one quarter of the aquifer’s total saturated volume has been depleted, and certain zones are now dry (Amosson et al 2011) . The water crisis of the Texas High Plains sets an example for the unsustainable nature of industrialized farming.

Water scarcity in the future will negatively impact the security of meat production. While an increasing number of regions become pressured by water shortages, the demands for freshwater withdrawals are projected to increase (Boer and Vries 2010). Over 70% of global water is used for agricultural purposes, and nearly two thirds of those crops are used to produce livestock feed (Boer and Vries 2010). Undoubtedly, water scarcity will be a significant challenge for industrial meat production. While food security in both rural communities and city populations is at risk, the rural poor are the most susceptible (Postel 1992). Industrialized farms must adapt in order to compensate for water shortages. However, many of these adaptations require extensive time and money investments. In order to maintain crop productivity with limited water resources, growers can expect to change their cropping patterns and shift to soil conservation practices. (Boer and Vries 2010). Experts anticipate that many rural and isolated farms will struggle to adapt, leaving the surrounding communities with limited access to cheap meat products (Amosson et al 2011). Sustaining the global meat industry will result in a significant loss of natural freshwater resources. Thus, food security is majorly threatened by meat production.

Soil Erosion Diminishing Farmable Lands

Lastly, soil erosion has quickly become one of the most threatening environmental challenges for intensive agriculture. Over 99.7% of all food obtained by humans comes from the land, underlining the importance of agricultural croplands to our diets (Brown 1997). The future of food security is dependent on both the amount of croplands available for production and the quality of those soils. However, human-induced erosion has made many soils invaluable to agriculture (Burgess and Pimentel 2013). Exposure to wind and rain can cause soils to erode. Rain is the most dominant form of soil degradation and occurs when heavy raindrops dislodge soil particles from the surface (Burgess and Pimentel 2013). If the land is sloping, the erosion is intensified. Storms can often result in large amounts of soil being transported into waterways and valleys. Another powerful component of erosion is wind energy. Wind can lift particles of soil and transport them thousands of miles. Therefore, erosion occurs most easily in soils with fine texture and weak structural development (Burgess and Pimentel 2013). Currently, the rates of erosion are now surpassing the rates of soil renewal, endangering the future for agriculture.

While erosion occurs naturally in many environments, humans have exacerbated its occurrence by clearing natural vegetation for crops and diminishing soil quality (Brown 1997). A large number of these crops are not grown for direct human consumption, but instead livestock feed. When natural vegetation is cleared and ploughed, rain and wind energy can then take away the exposed topsoil (Brown 1997). It is suspected that half of the Earth’s topsoil has been lost in the last 150 years (Kendall and Pimentel 1994) . Additionally, the rate of soil loss is estimated to be nearly 40 times faster than the rate of soil renewal. This leaves approximately 10 million hectares of croplands per year invaluable to agriculture (Kendall and Pimentel 1994). However, land clearing for farming is not the only factor contributing to diminishing soil quality. Soil salinization has become an increasing struggle for agriculturalists. Salinization occurs when plants absorb water and then leave the salts behind in the soil (Burgess and Pimentel 2013). When other plants then absorb these high levels of saline toxins, their growth can be stunted and their leaves may suffer from leaf burn and defoliation. Potassium-based fertilizers are also known to increase the salt concentration in soils (Burgess and Pimentel 2013). This results in lower crop yields and diminishing availability of arable lands. Converting natural ecosystems to pastures for grazing can also worsen the effects of erosion. Soil compaction can be the direct result of overgrazing and trampling by livestock (Shuman et al 2001). When soils are compressed by a topical source, they become denser and lose much of their water and air content. Compacted soils are difficult for many plants to grow in because infiltration, root movement and drainage are all restricted (Shuman et al 2001). Overall, soil erosion has been worsened by human influence.

Soil erosion will affect the security of meat production through crop shortages and price inflation (Burgess and Pimentel 2013). Intensive agriculture and livestock grazing are limiting the amount of land that we can farm on. Once land has become degraded and useless to the producer, they move on to more productive land. However, future world populations are expected to require both higher yields in existing farms and resources from new farms all together. Resultantly, farmers will be faced with an increased demand for food production alongside a decreased availability of arable land (Buringh 1989). In fact, to provide enough meat for the growing population, grain and corn production will have to increase by nearly 40%. Unfortunately, new lands suitable for agriculture only cover 11% of the globe, leaving a high likelihood of severe food shortages in the future (Burgess and Pimentel 2013). While crop yields become increasingly more dependent on fertilizers, the cost of production rises. Currently, an estimated 66% of the world population is malnourished, and as production costs inflate, cheap food sources will become unavailable to much more of the world. The economic impact of soil erosion already stands at 400 billion dollars yearly much of which is concentrated in developing and rural communities (Burgess and Pimentel 2013). However, soil erosion affects the crop productivity of farms around the world. Unless sustainable agricultural practices are adopted, soil erosion may become one of the greatest challenges faced by mankind.

Conclusion: The future of food security

Overall, industrialized meat production is one of the leading threats to future food security. Nearly half of the people in the world are malnourished, yet the global population continues to grow at unprecedented rates. As developing countries progress economically, the per capita consumption of meat products increases (Lal 2004). In order to match the supply with demand, intensive agriculture and livestock farms have become the leading suppliers of meat in the world. However, intensive agriculture does not come without environmental consequences. Meat production is estimated to release more harmful greenhouse gases into the environment than both transportation and industry (FAO 2009). While global warming directly harms crop yields, climate policies in agriculture can also result in increased production costs for farmers. The livelihood of agriculturalists in rural and developing nations may suffer greatly, and many farms could close under financial pressures (Van der Werf and Peterson 2009). Additionally, natural freshwater reserves are depleting rapidly to support large-scale meat productions. Industrial livestock farms utilize over half of the freshwater available for any use in the United States (Vries & Boer 2010). Many of these groundwater supplies are non-renewable, leaving the future for the meat industry uncertain. Finally, soil erosion decreases crop yields and directly limits the amount of farmable lands available for use. Fertile soil is being lost at a rate 40 times faster than it is renewed yet agricultural lands must expand to support the growing population (Kendall and Pimentel 1994). The meat industry relies on the success of cereal crops for livestock feed. Consequently, a sustainable and secure future for meat production is unlikely. Food shortages are expected to increase and the prices of meat products will inflate. While global food security faces its greatest challenges ahead, the consumption of livestock remains the ‘meat’ of the problem.

Microalgal applications toward agricultural sustainability: Recent trends and future prospects

Kshipra Gautam , . Santanu Dasgupta , in Microalgae , 2021

1 Introduction

With the onset of the green revolution, agricultural productivity has increased tremendously due to the introduction of better yielding varieties and the use of various agricultural inputs. In general, agricultural inputs are chemical and biological materials used in crop production.

Fertilizers and pesticides attract major attention with respect to inputs in increasing agricultural production. Fertilizer application provides nutrients required for crop growth while pesticide application can significantly reduce plant diseases or insect pests or weeds thus indirectly contributing to an increase in agricultural production. Gradually, the dependence on chemical inputs, mainly the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has increased significantly, in all modern agriculture practices. However, in a disturbing trend, the utilization rate of agriculture chemicals is only

35% and the unutilized fertilizers and pesticides are most likely to contaminate soil and water bodies ( Zhang, Yan, Guo, Zhang, & Ruiz-Menjivar, 2018 ). As a result, an alarming level of residues of agricultural chemicals, which are likely to be the result of runoff or unused chemical inputs, were reported to be present in the soil, water, air, and agricultural products in several parts of the world. For example, the buildup of metal contaminants, such as arsenic, cadmium, fluorine, lead, and mercury in agricultural soils was reported to be associated with the vast use of inorganic fertilizers ( Udeigwe et al., 2015 ). Similarly, pesticides were detected in almost all stream water samples at multiple agricultural sites in the USA ( Gilliom, 2007 ) and the residential environments of agricultural communities in Japan ( Kawahara, Horikoshi, Yamaguchi, Kumagai, & Yanagisawa, 2005 ).

In the last century, the use of agricultural chemicals has aided in doubling the production however, the current need to increase food production keep pressure on the intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides ( Carvalho, 2017 ). There is still a mounting pressure on agriculture to meet the demands of the growing population. As per the United Nations, the world's population will increase by 2.2 billion, reaching around 9.7 billion by 2050 ( https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html ). To meet the growing demand for food, excessive and imbalanced use of pesticides and fertilizers continued, and this trend has caused adverse effects on the environment. Although harmful organic pesticides have been replaced by biodegradable chemicals to a large extent, contamination by historical residues and ongoing accumulation still impact the quality of food, water, and environment ( Carvalho, 2017 ). It is essential to develop and adopt sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture practices, which not only enhance yield but also crop quality and environmental sustainability. With respect to agricultural inputs, pollution impact assessment and pollution prevention/reduction strategies are the most researched areas in the past 3 decades ( Zhang et al., 2018 ), and significant efforts are being continually taken to use harmless sustainable agriculture inputs such as natural fertilizers and biopesticides.

Microalgae can be a great value to agriculture. Many studies indicate the use of microalgae in sustainable and organic agricultural practices ( Priyadarshani & Rath, 2012 Sharma, Khokhar, Jat, & Khandelwal, 2012 ) and still, extensive research is being carried out.

Microalgae are a diverse group of microorganisms that are ubiquitous and found in almost every habitat on earth be it soil, oceans, hot springs or in dessert lands. Microalgae are unicellular or multicellular eukaryotic organisms, however, cyanobacteria that are commonly called blue-green algae (BGA) are also interchangeably referred to as microalgae in this chapter. Microalgae can perform photosynthesis by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and energy from sunlight. They have a high growth rate and hence produce higher biomass per unit area as compared to other microbes ( Gautam, Pareek, & Sharma, 2013, 2015 Hu et al., 2008 ).

Microalgae are known to possess several functional properties that can make agriculture more sustainable. For example, microalgae have plant growth promoting, insecticidal, and pesticidal activities. Biostimulants produced by microalgae result in improved plant growth and hence enhanced crop performance. Further, microalgae act as biofertilizers and enhance nutrient availability by fixing nitrogen and improving the soil fertility/soil structure. Several microalgae symbiotically interact with higher plants, bacteria, fungi, mycorrhiza, etc., resulting in enhanced growth of the interacting species. Microalgae also find an application in crop protection and combating environmental stress by eliciting defense mechanisms in the plant and suppressing diseases by controlling the growth of pathogens. These beneficial qualities if further exploited in a judicial manner, microalgae can act as a sustainable alternative for wide applications in agriculture ( Richmond, 2003 ). In this review, a detailed overview of a wide range of applications of microalgae, especially as alternatives to synthetic chemicals, in improving the agricultural sustainability has been presented.

This is why food security matters now more than ever

The global food security challenge is straightforward: by 2050, the world must feed two billion more people, an increase of a quarter from today’s global population. The demand for food will be 56% greater than it was in 2010.

The United Nations has set ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture as the second of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the year 2030.

“With 10 years to go until 2030, the world is off-track to achieve the SDG targets for hunger and malnutrition,” says the latest report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. “After decades of long decline, the number of people suffering from hunger has been slowly increasing since 2014.”

So what needs to be done to achieve the SDG target? The solution will involve addressing a whole host of issues, from gender parity and ageing demographics, to skills development and global warming. Agriculture will need to become more productive and greener.

These will be among the issues under discussion at the World Economic Forum’s virtual event ‘Bold Actions for Food as a Force for Good’ from 23-24 November 2020.

Why is food security such a major global challenge?

The obvious reason is that everybody needs food. But the complexity of delivering sufficient food to a national population and to the whole world’s population shows why food security is such a priority for all countries, whether developing or developed.

In short, this is a global challenge because it’s not just about food and feeding people, but also about practically all aspects of an economy and society.

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1. Population growth – this varies considerably across countries. Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double its population from one to two billion by 2050. Populations in the developing world are also becoming increasingly urbanized, with 2.5 billion additional urban residents projected in Africa and Asia.

2. Changing tastes – not only is the population growing, but its diet is changing, too. As people become more affluent they start eating food that is richer in processed foods, meat and dairy. But to produce more meat means growing more grain.

3. Climate change – currently, 40% of the world’s landmass is arid, and rising temperatures will turn yet more of it into desert. At current rates, the amount of food we’re growing today will feed only half of the population by 2050.

What makes ensuring food security so complex?

Consider India. Agriculture accounts for 18% of the economy’s output and 41% of its workforce. India is the second biggest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. Yet according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, some 189 million Indians are undernourished, the largest number of hungry people in any single country. An estimated 14% of the population of India are too malnourished to lead a normal life.

Addressing the problem of hunger and malnourishment in an economy such as India’s requires improvements in the productivity of the agriculture sector, particularly smallholder farms. Rural and farming communities typically experience a higher incidence of poverty and hunger.

Agriculture must also be sustainable. Globally, the sector accounts for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater withdrawals so attention has to be paid to energy and water use in farming. Waste is also a problem, with an estimated one-third of food consumption, some 1.3 billion tonnes, lost.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about it?

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose's impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

In 2007 and into the first half of 2008, global food prices increased sharply stirring social unrest and riots in both developing and developed economies, from Bangladesh to Brazil, from Mexico to Mozambique. This prompted the World Economic Forum and its partners, members and other constituents to define, in 2009, a New Vision for Agriculture (NVA) the aim continues to be to achieve, through market-based public-private approaches, 20% improvement in food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunities every decade till 2050.

The World Economic Forum’s action portfolio of locally driven public-private partnerships under the NVA has mobilized over $10 billion, with some $1.2 billion already implemented, reaching nearly 3.6 million smallholder farmers.

The Forum also launched the Food Action Alliance, a coalition of organisations working together to strengthen the impact of agricultural value chains to produce food efficiently and sustainably, as well as the Food Innovation Hubs, which are regional platforms designed to enable technology and innovations to meet local needs. In addition, Uplink's Future of Protein initiative is calling for innovative projects to accelerate progress toward accessible, affordable, healthy and sustainable protein.

Japanese turning overseas

While some commentators (ourselves included) may hope that a seemingly difficult reversal in Japan’s food and agricultural trends takes place through initiatives like those mentioned above, those who have traditionally exercised power in post-World War II Japan have, for several years, made their own moves to deal with a potential long food emergency.

Basically Japanese corporate food giants have been spreading their investment tentacles overseas in recent years. The New York Times reported in 2010 that Japan’s food sector’s strategy was to infiltrate overseas health food and confectionery markets, particularly in Asia

At the other end of the world in land-rich Australia, Japanese giants have acquired major companies: beer-maker Kirin bought out of Australia’s largest dairy company and competitor Asahi was more recently involved in its own huge takeover.

Even more interesting is the decision of one of Japan’s most prominent tea-making companies, Ito-en, to make a heavy, risky investment years in advance to set up a tea-production facility in the state of Victoria. If this plan works, Ito-en will produce iconic Japanese green tea for the Japanese market and therefore fill a predicted gap in the country’s own production capacity down the track.

These, some would argue, fore-sighted investment strategies, make sense on a business level given that Japan’s domestic food market will surely start shrinking as the population shrinks. People can only consume so many meals and drinks in a day. Sensible companies should seek new markets before old ones decline.

Comprehensive research is required to consider the true extent of this trend into the future and at a global level. But given the close links in the past between the Japanese bureaucracy and the country’s corporate elite in the Keidanren organisation, one could easily assume that these corporate manoeuvres reflect, unofficially at least, a policy to shore up Japan’s food security, even if the foods themselves are produced overseas.

In other words, analogous to the global phenomenon of “land grabs” where foreign nations are buying huge swathes of land particularly in Africa to grow food for their own populations, even if a country’s food self-sufficiency ratio is low it may still have the capacity to feed itself. A declining Japan with companies expanding overseas would, at the very least, be more food-secure having its own corporations in positions to control food that it will import by necessity.

What Japanese firms buying up companies and land overseas and commencing foreign operations does not ensure, however, is a de-coupling of food prices from the global oil price. In Japan, as in many food-importing countries, only locally oriented, sustainable agriculture can do that. The question is can “green” approaches to food production attract the necessary labour in light of the country’s declining demographics and economy and the increasing pressures of “race-to-the-bottom globalization”?

Earlier in 2012 the Japanese government announced that by 2060 the population of Japan will fall to 87 million (from 125 million), but that 40 percent will be over the age of 65. At that point, for every single person in retirement there would be only one person working to support their pension payments. As a result, there is growing concern that the notion of retirement age is going to become a thing of the past.

If we project forward to 2060, the future for Japan could be that grandfather and grandmother will still be working and everyone in your family will be ‘half-farmer, half X’.

If we look to the past for lessons, reflecting on the writings of Eisuke Ishikawa, living in Japan now must feel close to how people felt as their society transitioned from the Edo era (feudal society) to the Meiji period (modern industrial) from 1868 onwards. Times of great change cause uncertainty and public concern.

Fortunately Japan’s history has shown that the Japanese are capable of adapting to dramatic changes. There lies a small hope that the country will find an appetite to transform its culinary preferences towards a more local, sustainably grown and non-fossil fuel dependent food production system.

But, more likely, that may not happen until all other possible options have been exhausted. Sadly, we probably have to wait for political and corporate leaders of Japan to become convinced of the need to shift away from the reliance on the global food system based on the availability of cheap and plentiful energy. Unfortunately, they may only reach such a conviction after they witness the system break down.

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Watch the video: Davos 2014 - Rethinking Global Food Security (January 2022).