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News : Global Economy Last Updated: Jan 26, 2011 - 7:14 AM

Age of low-cost food is over study warns; Third of world’s food is currently being wasted
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Jan 25, 2011 - 3:42 AM

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The age of low-cost food is over and the real prices of key crops is set to rise 50-100% during the next 40 years, according to a UK government report which was published on Monday. The report estimates that a third of the world’s food is currently being wasted, and that halving food waste by 2050 would have the same effect as increasing food production today by 25%.

The project, Global Food and Farming Futures, was organised by the think-tank, Foresight, and has involved around 400 leading experts and stakeholders from about 35 low-, middle and high-income countries across the world. It has brought together evidence and expertise from a wide range of disciplines across the natural and social sciences to identify choices, and to assess what might enable or inhibit future change. Building upon existing work, it has also drawn upon over 100 peer-reviewed evidence papers that have been commissioned.

Foresight says the global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years. On the demand side, global population size will increase from nearly 7bn today to 8bn by 2030, and probably to over 9bn by 2050; many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the production side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative. Over this period globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures.

Increases in population and per capita demand could combine to create a rise in total demand for food of 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050.

Today, an estimated 925m people suffer from food shortage; about 1bn over-eat, triggering various diseases including the growing incidence of type 2 diabetes  and another 1bn have nutrient deficient diets.

Several critical resources on which food production relies will come under more pressure in the future. Conversely, growth in the food system will itself exacerbate these pressures:

  • Land for food production: Overall, relatively little new land has been brought into agriculture in recent decades. Although global crop yields grew by 115% between 1967 and 2007, the area of land in agriculture increased by only 8% and the total currently stands at approximately 4,600m hectares. While substantial additional land could in principle be suitable for food production, in practice land will come under growing pressure for other uses.

  • Global energy demand: This is projected to increase by 45% between 2006 and 2030 and could double between now and 2050. Energy prices are projected to rise and become more volatile, although precise projections are very difficult to make.

  • Global water demand: Agriculture already currently consumes 70% of total global ‘blue water’ withdrawals from rivers and aquifers available to humankind. Demand for water for agriculture could rise by over 30% by 2030, while total global water demand could rise by 35–60% between 2000 and 2025, and could double by 2050 owing to pressures from industry, domestic use and the need to maintain environmental flows.

From 1961–2008, growth rates of yields (output per hectare) for grains in developed countries were on average 1.5% per annum and 2.1% in developing countries. Since 1985, there has been a reduction in these average growth rates. The report says projections of food prices are very sensitive to assumptions about growth in supply, and hence to changes in yields.

Foresight recommends what it terms 'sustainable intensification' and it says it follows that if (i) there is relatively little new land for agriculture, (ii) more food needs to be produced and (iii) achieving sustainability is critical, then sustainable intensification is a priority. Sustainable intensification means simultaneously raising yields, increasing the efficiency with which inputs are used and reducing the negative environmental effects of food production. It requires economic and social changes to recognise the multiple outputs required of land managers, farmers and other food producers, and a redirection of research to address a more complex set of goals than just increasing yield.

The report says while global estimates of waste are reliant so far on a weak evidence base, there is little doubt that the scale is substantial. It has been estimated that as much as 30% of all food grown worldwide may be lost or wasted before and after it reaches the consumer. Some estimates have placed it as high as 50%.

SEE: Finfacts article, Sept 2009; Norman Borlaug - - Father of Green Revolution - - dies; Credited with saving more lives than any other person who has ever lived

There needs to be a worldwide agricultural revolution, with farmers growing more food at less cost to the environment, UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said on Monday.

Responding to the report, Spelman and Mitchell said that there was a role for governments, the private sector and consumers to play throughout the entire food system in achieving future food security.

Caroline Spelman said: "We need a global, integrated approach to food security, one that looks beyond the food system to the inseparable goals of reducing poverty, tackling climate change and reducing biodiversity loss – and the UK Government is determined to show the international leadership needed to make that happen.

“We can unlock an agricultural revolution in the developing world, which would benefit the poorest the most, simply by improving access to knowledge and technology, creating better access to markets and investing in infrastructure.

“To fuel this revolution, we must open up global markets, boost global trade and make reforms that help the poorest.  Trade restrictions must be avoided, especially at times of scarcity. And we must manage price volatility by building trust and cooperation  - - and in particular by creating greater transparency around the true levels of food stocks.”

Andrew Mitchell said: “Addressing rural poverty in developing countries while producing enough food to provide for a growing global population needs a sustained focus on agriculture. As well as boosting economic growth, investment in agriculture means the poorest countries are able to feed their populations and are more resilient to shocks caused by changing global food prices.

“This report makes very clear the implications of a population increase to nine billion people by 2050 - - two billion more hungry mouths to feed, less land available to feed them from, higher rates of malnutrition, and increasing food price volatility that will hit the world’s poor hardest."

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