I am constantly startled by references to “population growth” as a cause of a number of development challenges such as food security. Food security was defined (common used definition) during the World Food Summit in 1996 as: when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Anything short of the above definition poses an insecurity for future food.
Source: The World Bank
But then, if there’s one thing we can agree on, it is the fact that there are certainly a lot of us. But how much of a growing population can the earth really support comfortably without destroying it and how much of food can be produced out of it looking at the present global human population approximated to be 7.35 billion. Figure (1) shows the distribution of population around the world (upper panel).
Figure (1). Distribution and projected growth of world’s population
World population growth and the demand for food
Although, the world’s population growth rate in recent years have slowed by 1.24% 10 years ago verse 1.18% in recent past, an annual addition of 83 million people is projected. The world’s population is approximated to increase by more than one billion people within the next 15 years, reaching 8.5 billion in 2030, and will further increase to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100 showed in Figure (2). The expansion of population is said to be one of the major contributors to undernourishment around the world Figure (3). In 2016, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported that 795 million people in the world were undernourished, among which 780 million people in developing regions.Therefore, this is a wake-up call for policy-making towards an agenda to increase global food security.
Figure (2). Population of the world: estimates, 1950-2015, medium-variant projection and 80 and 95 per cent confidence intervals, 2015-2100.
Figure (3). Undernourishment around the world, 1990-2 to 2012-6
Number of undernourished and prevalence (%) of undernourishment
The impact of Population growth on the environment and food productivity
The evidence shown by the alarming increase in population growth as demonstrated in Figure 1 and Figure 2 clearly presents the big challenge for the demand for more food production by the middle of this century and if this challenge is over looked, the lack of inadequate supply of food will come with its own set of challenges as already stated.
Figure (4). Food demands: Projections to 2050
At the current consumption growth, the global demand for food is projected to increase for at least another 40 years. Recent studies suggest that, the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050 Figure 4. This means that, growing competition for limited land, water, energy, fertilizer, pesticide, and the overexploitation of Earth’s natural resources by 2030 according to Charles et al. (2010), will affect our ability to produce the required quantities of food to feed the growing population. Additionally, the consequence of these will be much felt if our inability to bring down sharply the impact of human activities such as greenhouse gases emitted globally and at the same time coping with the gelling impact of climate change that cannot be avoided fails to gain the needed attention before the stipulated time frame.
Tackling the first things first: The environment!
Fig 5: Planetary Boundaries.
The need to arrest the accelerating impact human activities have had on the environment centuries long will be the starting point to improve food security rather than just concentrating on the yield boost! So far, the magnitude of human activities on the environment is drawn using the new Earth’s system framework (Planetary Boundaries) to envisage to what extent is the interaction between human activities and the environment (Fig 5). To explain, the green areas represent human activities that are within safe margins, the yellow areas represent human activities that may or may not have exceeded safe margins, the red areas represent human activities that have exceeded safe margins, and the gray areas with red question marks represent human activities for which safe margins have not yet been determined.
What am I trying to put across here? The reason is simple! That, the already overly burden environment will ‘hurt’ beyond its threshold if care is not taken to introduce the right technology and mechanisms to produce food to feed the growing population. To successful achieve this, there is the need to maximize both the use of those technologies already developed, generate and exploit new scientific discoveries safe for the environment at the same time, invest in new and greener revolution, a revolution with science and technology at its heart because, exceeding these boundaries can’t just be an option.
So, what is the way forward?
In tackling the way forward to producing adequate food that will promote food security than it is now, two approaches will be encouraged in this blog: 1. How the role of sustainable innovation can ensure food security and 2. Achieving Sustainable agriculture using natural resources to increase food security.
The role of sustainable innovation
Improving global food security using new methods in agriculture productivity is vital to increase crop yields as this is the heart of food production. Increasing yield through a research based environmentally friendly production technology and not forgetting subsiding farm inputs will be a major boost to food security . I see this process being more feasible by reinforcing a bottom up approach to target small-scale farming with the technical know-how that will be sustainable for them especially those of the global south where food insecurity is at its peak. This is because low yields or yield gaps occur among other factors due to technical constraints that prevent local food producers from increasing productivity. For instance, farmers may not have access to the technical knowledge and skills required to increase production, the finances required to invest in higher production such as irrigation, fertilizer, machinery, crop-protection products, and soil-conservation measures or the use of crop and livestock varieties that maximize yields.
It is possible for the role of biotechnology to promote crop yields through innovations that will be more acceptable to the public than it is now! Currently, plant genetics like transgenic crops, insect-resistance crops, herbicide-crops and viral-resistance crops have been crucial factors that have had some debateable prove to increase global crop yields through the use of responsible management of biotechnology for sustainable agriculture production but then, their failure to justify their safety for both humans and its environmental safety has been an issue for global contention thus, evidence of their safety is highly necessary for an utmost acceptability.
Additionally, Foley et al.2011; Flood 2010 also suggested that, that by shifting crop production away from non-food applications like bioenergy crops and by recording and measuring pre-and post-harvest crop losses will also increase food availability and production thereby, increasing food security as a whole.
Sustainable agriculture promotes agriculture productivity and food security. Acevendo (2011) suggest that, the application of new research methods and new agricultural management and farming practices will increase water and food productivity at the same time using a renovated approach to agriculture that aims at reconciling resource use and food production in support of local, small-scale farming while relying on modern ecological knowledge and theories to achieve sustainability in agriculture will further promote food security.
Last, not least, embracing sustainable intensification which is basically to increase food production from existing farmlands while minimizing pressure on the environment the same way that yields can be increased with the use of existing technologies such as precision agriculture which allow the application of water, nutrients, and pesticides only to places at the times they are most required optimizes the use of farm inputs by farmers and at the same time, also increase food availability for the growing population. Additionally, it promotes an efficient use of agricultural lands and water bodies used for aquaculture and fisheries in ways specifically designed to reduce negative impacts on biodiversity.
Food security through the twenty-first century is achievable, but must first be tackled coherently with other global challenges such as population growth and its impact on the environment as demonstrated above. To what is more, Cassman (2012) ; Misselhorn et al. (2012) justify the need to act immediately to ensure food security to all people because, the challenge for the agricultural sector is no longer simply to maximize productivity to feed the population until 2050 but to ensure food access, distribution and social justice to all people while aiming to meet the sustainable Development Goal (2) which promotes Zero hunger for all.
All of this will be possible to achieve if we all make a conscious effort to avoid the temptation to further sacrifice Earth’s already hugely depleted biodiversity for easy gains in food production, not only because biodiversity provides many of the public goods on which mankind relies but also because we do not have the right to deprive generations yet unborn of its economic and cultural benefits.