Global Food Security

Written evidence submitted by The Soil Association


The Soil Association is a UK charity, campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable, food, farming and land use. We welcome the opportunity to make the following submission to the International Development Commons Select Committee’s (IDC) inquiry on ‘global food security’.


According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, IAASTD and development charities, helping to feed those currently starving or malnourished means increasing food production, supply and availability in those countries where the problems are occurring, and to the poorest people in those countries, and local agro-ecological systems are best suited to achieve this.

This is particularly the case when considering future threats to agricultural production, as the resources currently needed to produce food, oil based fertilisers and pesticides, mined phosphates and fresh water, become scarcer and more expensive.

Organic and other agro-ecological farming systems can help the world feed itself, but as well as changing our farming systems, we need to eat differently, feed our livestock differently, and waste less food.

1. Food has never before existed in such abundance. There is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment they need, and yet there are nearly 1 billion people in the world today who are hungry and another billion who are malnourished, lacking the essential micronutrients they need to lead healthy lives. At the same time, more than 1 billion are overweight, of which 300 million are obese, posing a major risk for diet-related illnesses such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. There are clearly huge global inequalities in the distribution of food. People continue to go hungry because they cannot afford to buy food, or access it in other ways such as growing it themselves. This arises directly because of poverty, but natural disasters, conflict, poor agricultural practices and infrastructure and over-exploitation of the environment can all be contributory factors.

2. In addition to demographic changes, it should be recognized that the dietary shift of a growing population will also have a significant impact on the natural environment. Business-as-usual global projections assume that with economic growth populations in the developing world will increase their consumption of meat and dairy products, extending the nutrition transition that is already occurring in the developed world. Whilst the human health costs of such a shift are already being felt in terms of increased rates of obesity, and non-communicable diseases such as Type-2 diabetes and some types of cancer [1] , the impacts on the natural environment should also be considered. Such diets involve the rapid expansion of livestock numbers, causing increased greenhouse gas emissions, and expansion of grain production as feed, putting further pressure on important bio-diverse habitats.

3. The recent increase in food prices has pushed yet more people in the Global South, who are reliant on food imports and spend a large proportion of their income on food, into hunger. Small countries that are dependent on imports especially in Africa were deeply effected by the food and economic crises. The causes of this price hike include biofuel policies that have diverted grain away from the food supply, harvest failures and commodity speculation. The majority of the people who are hungry live in the Global South, in poor rural areas, and are often directly involved in producing food. Many do not have land of their own and work for others, often in seasonal jobs, to earn money to survive. Poor people living in urban areas are another group that are at risk of hunger, and this is a growing issue as cities continue

4. A key challenge is that we are now living in a resource-constrained world and this will impact on our ability to produce food and to protect the natural environment. Peak phosphorus is the second critical resource constraint which will be a key challenge in the future. The supply of phosphorus from mined phosphate rock could ‘peak’ as soon as 2033 [2] , after which this non-renewable resource will become increasingly scarce and expensive. Thus, we are facing the end of cheap and readily-available phosphate fertiliser on which intensive agriculture is totally dependent. The impact of this is likely to be an increase in the price of food as production levels drop.

5. New support for smallholder agriculture, especially in Africa, is urgently needed to increase productivity and provide economic opportunities for small scale farmers. This investment needs to be focused on agro-ecological systems, such as organic, rather than on intensive farming methods that will further degrade the environment and require expensive inputs made from fossil fuels, that will become increasingly scarce in the future.

6. The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, has argued for the scaling up of such models of agriculture and ensuring that they work for the benefit of the poorest farmers. Developing agroecology requires supportive policy. However, in most African countries organic agriculture is not specifically supported by agricultural policy, and is sometimes actively hindered by policies advocating the use of high-input farming.

7. Agroecology is a science and a set of farming practices that seek to improve agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes, creating beneficial biological interactions among the different components of the agro-ecosystem. Organic systems put into practice the core principles of agroecology such as recycling nutrients on the farm, integrating livestock and crops, diversifying species and genetic resources, and considering the productivity of an entire agricultural system rather than a single crop. Agro-ecological farming is based on highly knowledge-intensive techniques that to expand. Urban agriculture is already a reality for many people in the Global South, but there is an increasing focus on the important role it can play in reducing hunger for the urban poor. Of course, in poor countries with a food-deficit production levels should be increased where appropriate, but agriculture also needs to play a role in reducing hunger through growing farmer and household incomes, building infrastructure and markets, and protecting and enhancing the natural environment.

8. Investment by governments and donors in agriculture in the Global South had dropped over the last three decades, although this is now changing with new investment from agri-food companies and new global policy initiatives. New support for smallholder agriculture, especially in Africa, is urgently needed to increase productivity and provide economic opportunities for small scale farmers. This investment needs to be focused on agro-ecological systems, such as organic, rather than on intensive farming methods that will further degrade the environment and require expensive inputs made from fossil fuels, that will become increasingly scarce in the future.

9. Agro-ecological farming is based on highly knowledge-intensive techniques that are developed through farmers’ knowledge and experimentation. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (‘the IAASTD report’) is supported by 400 scientists and 60 countries and recommends support for agro-ecological sciences that would contribute to addressing environmental issues whilst maintaining and increasing productivity. It also recommended that community-based innovation and local knowledge combined with science-based approaches as the best way to addressing the problems, needs and opportunities of the rural poor.

10. In the world by 2050, and it has been frequently argued that a massive increase in food production, of 70–100%, will be needed to feed them all. This is not just due to more people, but reflects the assumptions made by the authors of the modelling study about the diet we will all be eating. In making and using these predictions, policy-makers are assuming that many more people in countries in the Global South will be eating a ‘Western’ diet with more intensively-produced meat, dairy products, sugar and vegetable oils, following the shift in eating habits that has already occurred in countries in the Global North as incomes rise.

11. The model also assumes that there will be no reduction in the amounts eaten in the Global North, and in fact that there will be further 14% increase in the consumption of such foods,22 despite growing recognition of the negative health impacts of such diets in both low and high income countries. This continuing shift towards higher consumption of livestock products from intensively reared animals has implications for mitigating climate change. A large rise in the production of cereals would be needed for animal feed. The greenhouse gas emissions from such intensively-reared livestock are significant; from converting natural habitat to land to grow feed crops. the methane from cattle and sheep, and nitrous oxide from the production and application of manufactured fertilizers to grow animal feed.

12. A 70% increase or doubling in the production of food would not solve the hunger problem with 290 million people predicted to still be malnourished in 2050 if such a strategy was implemented. Moreover, such massive increases in food produced like this would have huge negative impacts on both the environment and human health, and are not necessary with action to change diets and reductions in food losses and waste.

December 2012

[1] Friel, S. et al (2009), Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: food and agriculture, Lancet , 2009, 374: 2016–25.

[2] Cordell, D., Drangert, J., and White, S. (2009) The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought, Global Environmental Change, 19, pages 292-305.

Prepared 10th January 2013