The new normal: Humanitarian crisis and food production

In less than 30 years’ time, there will be 10 billion people to feed—an impossible challenge if significant attempts are not made to reverse current trends.

The international community has recently received a request from the UN for a record sum of money to come to the rescue of over 339 million victims of humanitarian crisis: For its operations in 2023, the organization puts its price tag at a staggering $51.5 billion.

And now a new report issued this week by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reveals that there is another looming crisis contributing to the humanitarian challenge: the world’s ability to nourish its ever-growing population.

“If agrifood systems remain on their current paths, the evidence points to a future characterized by persistent food insecurity, degrading resources, and unsustainable economic growth,” the report says.

As things stand already, at least 222 million people in 53 countries will face acute food insecurity by the end of 2022, while 45 million people in 37 countries risk starvation. The forecast is bleak: Increasing populations, urbanization, macroeconomic instability, poverty and inequalities, geopolitical tensions and conflicts, fiercer competition over natural resources, and climate change are leading the world towards a constant situation of humanitarian crisis.

In less than 30 years’ time, there will be 10 billion people to feed—an impossible challenge if significant attempts are not made to reverse current trends. Without broader socioeconomic and environmental change, the FAO claim, sustainable agrifood systems will be impossible to achieve, and millions will be trapped in permanent food poverty.

In ‘The Future of Food and Agriculture—Drivers and triggers for transformation,’ the FAO warns leaders that a lack of vision and a reliance on “quick fixes” will come at a high cost for everyone. The report points out that the world is “tremendously off track” to meet the SDGs, including agrifood targets.

A change in direction for production, consumption, and governance

For the FAO, a perpetuation of the current system is not an option. "Past conditions are no longer available to replicate the development formula adopted by current high-income countries [i.e., achieving power and status through empire-building]... Future global development patterns depend on the resolution of key questions: institutions providing solutions for sharing the ‘global commons’; the distribution of political power and wealth; and the resolution of the extensive inequalities present in today’s economies,” the report argues.

In the 440-page document, the FAO claims the urgent need to change course will require governments to implement public policies for the establishment of a new system of food production.

Consumers will need to be more responsible actors since they “hold the power to trigger transformative processes by shifting demand towards more environmentally and socially responsible, and nutritious products.” But this alone will not be enough. The transformation will require better income and wealth distribution and a new production pattern with innovative technologies and approaches.

“A change of mindset is needed—'more of the same' will lead the world to the point of no return,” argues the FAO. “As it fatally compromises agrifood systems, the short-termism era will inevitably end either abruptly, with inestimable costs for everyone, or with a gradual and costly transition instigated by a new mindset that prioritizes long-term objectives.”

Production changes

The first stage is to acknowledge the growing body of evidence that demonstrates that prevailing agricultural practices, which rely on the intensive use of agrochemical inputs and energy, are endangering the future of agrifood systems—not to mention contributing to massive greenhouse gas emissions and unprecedented loss of biodiversity.

In short, the need to produce more with less is unavoidable, and producers must improve land and water use, increase the efficiency of their energy use, protect biodiversity, and restore soils and forests.

Part of the solution will come via technological innovations and its capacity to serve the more vulnerable. The FAO has hopes that digitalization and data analytics will help improve the operational efficiency of agrifood systems—including input use, disease control, supply chain management, and automation.

However, the challenges are enormous. “The reality is that the bulk of R&D spending is concentrated in only few countries, with a considerable share in the hands of private corporations,” the FAO claims. “This poses a risk of technological dependency and difficult access for a large part of the world.” Furthermore, there is a concern that big data and analytical capabilities are also concentrated in the hands of a few players. “Unless duly regulated, this will accelerate power concentration and imbalances, generate more inequality, and exclude poor and unskilled workers,” the FAO argues. There is a more existential consideration: “Relying on technology as the panacea might be too risky as a strategy—it may not arrive in time to save humankind.”

The report admits that a transition towards sustainable agrifood systems is likely to drive up prices. For this reason, policies that favor a more equitable distribution of income within and across countries need to be pursued. The report urges greater investment in social outcomes and increased social capital—to get people out of poverty, not just out of hunger. Such a move will require governments to secure access to land, water, forests, and capital.

Urban production

The transformation also requires that agrifood systems should no longer be considered from the rural perspective only. “The borders between rural and urban areas are increasingly blurred and they are becoming more interdependent,” the FAO claims. “A considerable part of activities conducted in agricultural value chains are set within, or close to, towns or peri-urban areas.”

The FAO explains that “Urbanization is a source of major changes in dietary habits, and cities offer a context in which food systems evolve rapidly and innovate. For transformations to be inclusive, particularly for small-scale farmers, strong institutions will be needed.”

Global governance

Finally, the UN agency claims that a new power structure must be established to address international issues like capital flows, climate change, and international conflicts. “An overall institutional vacuum is perceived in the discrepancy between the global level of issues at stake [… and] the increasing weakness of most of the sovereign countries in governing on such issues."

“With few exceptions, the size of most countries is […] too small to be able to influence, at least to some extent, these global dynamics. Therefore, transformative processes require, as a precondition, much stronger, more transparent and accountable institutions and governance across all domains of agrifood systems and their socioeconomic and environmental contexts,” the FAO concludes.