FEEDING THE WORLD
By John Moverley
As I write this, strike action has disrupted activities at the port at Calais, not only impacting on trade, ferries and Eurostar but also highlighting the major challenges posed by people migration. The major challenges facing many parts of our world is encouraging ever increasing numbers of people wishing to leave their home lands and seek out what they see as a better life in Europe. This is not the place to debate this complex and emotive issue but it does highlight the disparities that exist in our world and one of the many questions it poses is of how an ever increasing global population can be sustained.
In the eighteenth century Thomas Malthus forecast that human population would continue to grow until the earth had exhausted its resources. At that point in time, the human race would become victims of famine, disease and war. We know that this was an incredible simplification of a much more complex issue but does this have resonance today. The fact is that since Malthus, the advancement of science and technology has allowed great increases in crop and animal yields. Farming today, certainly in the developed world, is much different to that time. We have found new ways of harvesting and managing water supplies. This has allowed us to cope with population growth. However this has not applied across our globe.
A country’s ability to feed itself very much depends on three factors: availability of land, accessible water and population pressures. Famines tragically impacts on parts of our world, and disease and wars have all occurred often linked to the symptoms of such pressures. A chilling statistic is that annually at least 11 million children under the age of five die from hunger or hunger related disease. The human race has shown itself capable of major adaption and innovation yet these challenges remain. This links directly to migration bringing with it ever increasing challenges to us all and even more pressures, as we seek to further increase populations in limited areas of space and land.
Anthropologists have calculated that the carrying capacity of our globe without agriculture is around 10 million in a situation where life comprises of bands of people living together as hunters and gatherers. We now have over 7 billion people in the world and it continues to rise. Can we continue to innovate and increase productivity so we are able to feed ourselves as we have done thus far? If not, what are our options and how do these relate to the many other political and strategic issues?
If you expect me to provide an answer here, you will be disappointed but it does have implication for everyone in our food sector and supply chain. Some many years ago, I remember taking a visitor from Africa into a UK supermarket. His reaction was incredible, the range and the quality on offer was too much for him to comprehend. Certainly in the UK we have grown up to believe this is a right and the norm. Yet increasing pressures on supplies, dietary changes in developing areas of the world and other factors are already having an impact.
We all are acutely aware of the current dynamics of food retail certainly here in the UK – the growth of the discounters, price cutting of the so called basic commodities, the increasing influence of food programmes on what consumers see and demand in terms of variety and availability. I certainly welcome an increasing emphasis on food in education and a greater focus on where it comes from but is it all a bit late. It is easy to think that everyone in our food chains is making too much money and the current focus on value and lower prices is great but it is also important to think of sustainability.
So there are many and diverse challenges in our world and not least is our ability to feed the world. Something for us all to ponder at whatever level we operate in our food chains. I return to one of my more common phrases, that we live in interesting times.