Within the columns of the online magazine ParisTechReview, Marion Guillou, former president of INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research) put forward an illuminating study of which we have published some extracts here1.
Not a week goes by without a report or an article addressing the difficulties of global food security, a central question and one that is under constant pressure, because in 2050 the world population is expected to reach 9 billion.
In her analysis, Marion Guillou reminds us that current problems have more to do with the unequal distribution of food rather than the quantity of food produced, because 925 million people remain undernourished. This means that the depletion of resources, environmental pressure and chronic underinvestment in agriculture are all factors that undermine global agricultural and food stability.
The situation gets even worse when current paradigms mean it is no longer possible to consider global food security according to conventional fundamentals. Not only does supply no longer adjust to demand, as Marion Guillou points out, but agricultural markets have become uncertain and are structurally volatile.
Faced with this damaging situation, as the expert reminds us, the fight against hyper-volatility and excessive speculation is now a priority in order to ensure the survival and progress of the agricultural sector and ensure food security for all.
momagri Editorial Board
A few years ago, one would have thought that the problem of feeding the world was about to be solved, indeed the situation has improved significantly over the last fifty years. In 1960, the planet contained three billion people, six billion in 2000, while food production multiplied by 2.4. But tensions remained high, confirmed by the riots that occurred in 2008 in more than thirty countries (Senegal, Haiti, Egypt, Philippines ...) after the sharp rise in grain prices.
Furthermore, the question has become more complex. Not only has the problem of quantity not been resolved, as demonstrated by the strain on prices, but it is accompanied by that of quality: food related mortality and morbidity, be it in a context of food deficit or food surplus, goes beyond that related to infectious diseases, which calls into question nutritional programmes. Finally, the problem of quality is accompanied by that of access to resources, marked by wide disparities.
Food security is under pressure because of its many related issues.
Tension and volatility
The current context is not without paradoxes. It is theoretically possible to feed the some seven billion people on the planet. While population growth has been extremely rapid, on paper, each person currently disposes of an available 3000 kilocalories per day. On average, a person needs 2200 kcal to live well, this figure should be adjusted because, for example, a teenager requires more than an elderly person and also certain parts of food cannot be consumed (peelings etc. ...).
Yet today, despite the available 3000 kcal, we are still faced with poverty and a situation where overeating and undernourishment coexist. In fact, the problems are more closely linked to unequal distribution than quantity. The Indian economist Amartya Sen aptly described this issue: when a famine occurs, it is not that there is not enough to eat, it is because some people do not have access to the available resources.
However, this is only one aspect of the problem. A second set of questions relates to environmental issues. In the near future, the middle class population should increase significantly. Hundreds of millions of people will have access to mass consumption and this will burden all resources. Mineral and energy resources are already affected and the problem will surely affect food resources.
Demand will not only increase, but it will also change in nature. Historically, each time people have become richer, they first eat their fill and diversify their diet, then they want access to food of animal origin, indicating higher social status. This pattern of development is not restricted to OECD countries; it is expressed as a general trend.
While it is not always the same animal products: in India it is milk, in Japan fish, in other countries meat, the evolution, which reflects a universal aspiration, is systematic. Its impact is conceived in terms of agricultural production, when we know it takes an average of three vegetable calories to produce one animal calorie.
These factors contribute to new agricultural price volatility, a constantly growing phenomenon which no longer relates to the simple adjustment of supply and demand.
There are many causes, a strong increase in demand due to demographics, global growth and not least, dietary changes in many countries; add to this, extreme events associated with climate change, which has the effect of increasing tension and creating uncertainty. However, price volatility also exposes chronic under-investment in agriculture at an international level: because of low food prices and more generally, the world’s resources in the late twentieth century, there has been little investment in agriculture in recent decades.
If agricultural price volatility is not strongly experienced in developed countries, this is not the case elsewhere. When prices are too high, the urban poor have no money to buy the grain that forms their staple diet. This is what happened in 2008 in the 32 countries particularly affected by these disparities where protests erupted. Similar problems regularly hit rural areas, but they receive much less publicity...
This issue also reveals another consequence of volatility: when prices are too high, problems arises for the poor, when prices are too low, these problems affect the producers; in any event, poor producers always have a rough time. Finally and more generally, volatility impairs investment because investors hate opaque situations.
Tension is everywhere and at all levels, but once the diagnosis is shared, it is possible to make progress. Since 2008, this has been happening around the world during various international summits on food security, demonstrated by the G20 decisions aimed at improving knowledge on global levels of food stocks.
Depending on circumstances, concerted decisions might be made to increase or even exchange information in order to avoid a repetition of the 2008 situation - in the 32 countries affected by the crisis, food prices remained very high for several weeks after the problem was resolved at an international level as speculators took advantage of the lack of information and maintained artificially high prices.
The distribution of information is seen as an effective way to combat excessive volatility. Taking example from the USA, the re-regulation of certain agricultural commodity markets is also being considered in order to avoid excessive speculation. Efforts regarding losses and waste, but also awareness on the need to reinvest in the agricultural sector in order to meet demand for the coming years are all sources of progress.
1 To read the full article, follow this link http://www.paristechreview.com/2013/09/20/securite-alimentaire-mondiale/?media=print