Future Food Security Must Focus on Supplies
By Iain Climie, Contributing Author
Introduction: Is Global Hunger Looming?
Concerns on feeding rising human numbers go back centuries if not millennia with Thomas Malthus’s (1766-1834) dire predictions1 about inevitable starvation often cited. Soaring polar temperatures point to global heating although climate change could take an unexpected turn. Shifting ocean currents like the Gulf Stream or Beaufort Gyre could cool countries like Britain in a warming world while debris and gasses from a major volcanic eruption can dramatically reduce solar input. 1816’s “year without a summer” followed the 1815 Tambora eruption. More mundane disruption to food supplies can occur too, so what can be done to improve food security, especially for the world’s poor? Surprisingly the answer is “Plenty” at least on paper.
Technology often boosts production with the Green Revolution widely praised and there are many recent developments. GMOs have had a mixed reception globally, although gene splicing prevented disastrous rice losses to Grassy Stunt virus in the 1970s. Synthetic food, especially replacing meat from conventional livestock, has caused excitement although the idea is not new; Winston Churchill predicted it around 1930.2 Methane-reducing feed additives for ruminant livestock have existed for decades but have not been adopted despite some boosting growth3 while conventional plant breeding improvements are possible. Irradiation can extend the life of stored food, Australian trials demonstrated crops in deserts using solar-powered desalination, vertical farming allows racks of crops, aquaponic systems can give more food from less land while abandoned London Underground tunnels have been used to grow food. Older, cheaper and simpler ideas shouldn’t be discounted, especially for the world’s poor.
Feeding livestock grain or soya is wasteful, but natural vegetation, grass, crop residues and spent brewery grain are sensible. More productive crops could replace some livestock, although that could briefly boost meat supplies, while native species are often better than introduced ones; iguanas, have been described as “the chicken of the trees”4, capybara are better fodder converters than cattle while game ranching can combine habitat conservation with some food production e.g. rewilding US grassland with bison. Soil restoration and carbon capture can yield dramatic benefits while areas poorly suited, unsuitable, unused or undesirable for crop growing can support some production; suburban gardeners can produce fruit and vegetables or keep chickens. Silviculture (e.g. pigs or deer in woodland) and integrated methods (aquaponics or livestock in orchards) are useful while less conventional livestock include mealworms, snails and mussels.
Careful exploitation of wild plants and fungi is possible, while abolishing European fishing throwback was long overdue; fishermen not only over-fished but had to dump some of their catch. Carp, mussels and tilapia are more productively farmed than trout or salmon while aquaponic techniques work well. Modern and traditional methods can also be combined e.g. coupling more sensible livestock feeds with additives, while more food storage makes sense regardless.
Other general suggestions include eating some offal, not over-eating and fewer cash crops (including livestock feed); wrecking Colombian rainforests for coca beggars belief. Cutting waste may be simplest and should be popular. The IMechE’s report5 estimates at least 30% of global food production never reaches shops or markets while much waste occurs in supermarkets, other shops, canteens, restaurants, homes and on airlines. Factory and feedlot methods are wasteful as are fishing throwback, killing then wasting unprofitable livestock and not eating at least some animals killed as pests or culled on environmental grounds. Myxomatosis then RHD / RVHD (except perhaps in Australia) were difficult to forgive. Locusts won’t appeal but pigeons, grey squirrels and many other species could be eaten.
Matters improve, especially as such ideas work irrespective of the nature, extent, cause and direction of climate change. Some doomsday scenarios are unmanageable while poverty, conflict and oppression can ensure hunger regardless but unfortunately there are further concerns.
Food of all types can succumb to physical threats e.g. weather, natural disasters, fires (Australia recently), pests and diseases. Locusts caused havoc in East Africa in 2020 while the Irish potato famine and grassy stunt virus (qv) show the risks of reliance on a single crop. Xylella fastidiosa attacks numerous crops, there are many livestock diseases while aphids, rodents, viruses, bacteria, fungi, pigeons and other species can cause havoc. Such threats are manageable up to a point, but by whom?
Responsibility for food security is not clearly identified; nobody wants the job, bill or blame if supplies collapse. Without clear agreement though, it simply won’t happen at national or global level. Economists praise Ricardo’s law on specialization but countries trading cash crops for food run risks. Russia’s 2010 heatwave and drought caused a grain export ban and such actions, plus panic buying and stockpiling, could soar in future.
China’s famine (1958 to 1962)6 shows central planning failing but free markets too have problems. Demand for food energy is price inelastic i.e. consumption doesn’t double if prices halve. Food surpluses thus punish producers as unit prices crash while dumping subsidized Western gluts onto poorer countries (not famine relief) can wreck local agriculture7. Alternative markets for food crops (e.g. cattle feed, biofuels, brewing or cosmetics) avoid this but consume surpluses which could be stored instead. Despite free markets, the USA, the EU and others subsidise farming, potentially but not necessarily boosting food security.
Land and resource usage is a further concern. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson8 flagged the potential financial and ecological benefits of carefully using rainforests but short-termism has seen them flattened for soya (often for cattle), introduced livestock, logging, biofuels, other cash crops, Colombo-tantalite mining, other minerals (including fracking and open-cast methods) and Brazil’s proposed dam building. Similar threats apply elsewhere along with development yet poorer countries understandably want Western lifestyles and associated livelihoods. Environmentalists decades ago reckoned three or more fully used planets would be needed and many more now. There are more lucrative uses for food crops than feeding the world’s poor while more food in less space won’t guarantee conservation; combining conservation with careful use has merit although can be overdone. Still, alternative energy sources and nuclear will require less space than open-cast coal mining, fracking and large scale monocultures for biofuels.
Human beings are often conservative on diet, sometimes for religious or cultural reasons, while advice to eat more of some foods, to reduce others or to avoid waste and overeating will be unwelcome. Suggesting an Indian cattle cull will outrage Hindus yet how many people elsewhere would fund such an action, eat more beef now then less beef and dairy later? Inconsistencies are also common; many have blindspots about the impact of Western lifestyles.
Criticising population is popular but human numbers only fall if deaths exceed births; criticizing those with several children is easier than contemplating our own mortality. Yet who would reject longer, healthier lives if medical advances allowed?
Finally, seemingly sensible ideas can misfire. The UNFAO9 and Poore & Nemecek10 are amongst many critics of conventional livestock, especially cattle and sheep. Dramatic cuts in impact per head are possible but let’s reduce numbers. That needs investment up front, appropriate targeting, replacements for by-products (especially manure), a commitment to conservation with current stocks of beef, lamb and dairy eaten. If a cull occurred, the resulting meat and offal clearly shouldn’t be wasted but consider Shetland, 110 miles North of Scotland and poorly suited for most crops. In 1998 20,000 healthy sheep narrowly avoided a cull on economic grounds and would have been largely wasted. Others were less lucky in 2007. “Eat this, not that” is the wrong way round and a cop-out.
Theoretical solutions may easily fail in practice, while many will protect their own choice, convenience, wallets and vested interests. So, what can be done?
Possible Ways Forward
A major rethink is required, focusing on supplies, using ideas like “Enlightened Agriculture”11 and ideally featuring dietary flexibility. Supplies must be sufficient, secure enough, sustainable, affordable and available, while not digging up, chopping down, polluting or cooking the planet nor letting other human activities do so. Large-scale silviculture where appropriate and cutting waste are essential, trade benefits should be used where sensible but not if local food security is jeopardised; fewer cash crops, including livestock feed, may be necessary. Time, effort and money will be needed, but there is a surprising reason for optimism here; many current subsidies fund ecologically disastrous practices, so switching some payments to more sensible methods would minimize the amount of extra funding, although fish stock restoration will need money.
Criticisms of being able to eat exactly what we want, avoid other foods or promote our dietary views may seem outrageous but these attitudes are the wrong way round and could misfire badly. I would finish with two simple questions. If your ideas on changing food supplies (or business as usual) were adopted and global food supplies were either insufficient or inadequately distributed, would you be prepared to go without? If not, why not?
 Thomas Malthus “Essay on the Principles of Population” 1798
 Winston Churchill “Fifty Years Hence” Strand Magazine 1931
 Rowett Institute work – see news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/4582174.stm
 E.O. Wilson “The Diversity of Life” Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
 IMechE “Waste Not Want Not” (2013)
 F. Dikotter “Mao’s Great Famine” Bloomsbury 2010
 Oxfam Position Paper “Harnessing Trade for Development”
 E.O. Wilson “The Diversity of Life” Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
 UNFAO “Livestock’s Long Shadow” 2006
 J. Poore & T. Nemecek “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers Science” 2018
 Colin Tudge “So Shall We Reap” Allen Lane 2003
Iain Climie lives in Hampshire in England and has worked in engineering safety and risk assessment for the last 30 years. It became apparent to him that the techniques he used professionally (e.g. attempting to stop avionic systems causing accident air crashes) could also be applied to problems such as food security, climate change and habitat conservation. A systematic review of what could go horribly wrong is the underlying approach he uses in assessing climate risks. This article expresses the views of the author.