Agriculture now produces enough food to feed everyone on Earth. So why are a billion people still going hungry?

Agriculture, it turns out, is at the center of the food, energy and water nexus. It consumes 70% of the earth’s fresh water. And a 2012 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) puts agriculture’s global energy consumption (for the production of synthetic fertilizers and the powering of irrigation systems, farm machinery and distribution) at “30% of the world’s available energy.”

The environmental costs are also great. Farming contributes 12% to 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to Mariola Kopcinski, global strategic marketing director for FMC Corporation. Fertilizer runoff has created hypoxic dead zones in several areas of the world (the largest, in the Gulf of Mexico, is as big as the state of New Jersey and growing). Soil has been badly degraded in many areas, Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, said Allen Kelly, the dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. And through deforestation and monoculture farming, agriculture is seriously threatening the planet’s biodiversity.

Yet despite this massive use — and misuse — of resources, nearly one in eight living around the world are still chronically hungry.

The Problem Is Getting Worse

During the recent Initiative on Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) Conference on “The Nexus of Energy, Food and Water,” the food security panel addressed the serious challenges agriculture faces in the coming decades. Virtually everyone at the conference noted that by 2030, there would be nine billion people to feed, a nearly 30% increase over today’s global population.

This growth in demand coincides with a decline in productivity from the peak years of the Green Revolution. The success of the Green Revolution was due primarily to the efforts of Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Prize for his work, and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Together, they came up with highly productive varieties of grain that dramatically increased the food supply in Mexico, India and Southeast Asia. The increase in wheat yield between 1950 and 2004, said Kelly, was a staggering 250%.

But after years of increasing productivity, the impact of the Green Revolution is now waning, just as the demand for food is increasing. The new high-yield varieties Borlaug introduced “require more expensive inputs into seed, fertilizer and irrigation,” Kelly explained, and those costs are going up dramatically. Fertilizers are tied to the price of oil, which means the cost of the synthetic fertilizers has been climbing well beyond the reach of many small farmers.

In addition, climate change and poor land management have resulted in drought and growing desertification in some places, rendering irrigation either costly or impossible. The high-yield plant varieties created by Borlaug and IRRI cannot withstand this lack of water nearly as well as indigenous plants, which evolved to survive in dry areas. So, small farmers are increasingly reverting to hardier, but far less productive, crops.

Another unfortunate result of the Green Revolution: the displacement of many small farmers, who could not afford all those expensive inputs from the countryside to the cities. Sparked by the Green Revolution, this trend toward urbanization is accelerating at unprecedented rates. Fifty years ago, said Kelly, 80% of the world’s population was rural and comfortably produced enough food to feed the 20% who lived in cities. By 2050, the situation will have reversed: It is generally predicted that 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities by then, relying on the 25% who remain in the country to meet their need for food.

Costs Prove Critical

The cost of that food will be critically important, since much of this shift from rural to urban living involves poor residents of developing countries. Unable to support themselves on the land, these people are moving to the cities where they have to find jobs so that they can buy the food they once grew themselves. The problem is most acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the fastest pace of urbanization in the world and the least ability to employ its growing urban population. According to Sean Fox of the London School of Economics, “Over 60% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population lives in slum conditions; the highest level of ‘slum incidence’ of any major world region.”

In China, the problem associated with urbanization is not poverty, but rather the rapid growth of the middle class. The Chinese government is planning to spend $6.4 trillion over the next decade to move 60% of the country’s population to the cities, a senior planning official told Reuters at the end of February. The original plan, which is currently being revisited, calls for the Chinese government to build homes, roads, hospitals and schools for its growing urban population, in the hopes of spawning an affluent consumer class that will help drive the economy and replace the current export-led model, which is not sustainable.

The challenge for agriculture and the environment is that this new middle class is demanding what middle class residents the world over have always demanded: more meat and dairy. And animal agriculture is one of the least efficient modes of farming. Kopcinski notes that animal agriculture alone accounts for 21% of worldwide methane production and consumes “enormous amounts of water and plant resources. If we keep increasing our meat production and dairy production,” she added, “it’s just not sustainable.”

A recent study, published in the journal Nature, points out that 35% of crop production is used to feed animals, “which produces human food indirectly, and much less efficiently, as meat and dairy products.” The study distinguishes between animals raised on land that is unsuited for other food production and animals that displace crops normally grown for human consumption. The former, concluded the study’s authors, “can add calories and protein to the world and improve economic conditions and food security. However using highly productive croplands to produce animal feed, no matter how efficiently, represents a net drain on the world’s potential food supply.”

First Step: Reduce Waste

IGEL senior fellow Bernard David noted at the Nexus conference that, “30% to 50% (1.2 to 2 billion tons) of food produced globally never reaches a human stomach.” Huge amounts of food is wasted in the U.S. and other developed countries, in restaurants, at retail and in households.

But food insecurity is almost entirely limited to the developing world, where the situation is very different. A 2013 report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers noted that in less developed countries, food waste takes place not at the end of the supply chain, but toward the beginning: “Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure mean that produce is frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions.”

Resources essential to the growing of food are also wasted. The Nature study points to two examples. Areas with limited water resources and poor water and land management practices waste precious water through evaporation loss both in the fields and in storage and transport. And in some areas, fertilizer, too, is over-used, wasting a valuable resource, causing nutrient pollution of water and contributing to global warming by releasing nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. This problem is particularly severe in China, Northern India, the U.S. and Western Europe, the study’s authors noted.

While reducing all of this waste would certainly help improve food security, it still leaves an enormous gap. The consensus, Kopcinski said, is that by 2050, agricultural production needs to increase by 60% in order to feed the world’s population. As the chart shows, reducing waste lowers this estimate by only a small amount.

Solutions Must Be Local

On a global scale, “we produce enough food for all,” notes FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “We have hunger because people cannot buy the food or produce it themselves.” The nature of the problem varies from region to region, which is why, ultimately, approaches to food security must be grounded in local conditions, as well as local culture.

In China, the central government still largely manages the economy. With only 7% of the world’s land but 20% of the world’s population to feed, the Chinese government has clearly decided to pursue industrial agriculture. Using large-scale farming methods that have marginalized China’s 400 million small farmers, the government has ramped up swine and poultry production by 80% in the past decade, Kelly said, often in coastal areas, creating “a huge animal, environmental and human health threat.” Dairy farming, too, has grown dramatically in China. In 1980 the country had virtually no dairy industry. Today, Kelly noted, “they have something like 15 million milking cows.”

Unlike China, India does have significant land available for agriculture, and as the world’s largest democracy, the government has chosen to target its efforts to small farmers. Much of this effort has focused on boosting milk production through the formation of cooperatives, and today India is the world’s largest milk producer. These efforts are hindered by a poor distribution system, which leads to a great deal of waste, and by a low yield per cow as compared to world standards.

Slowly but surely, new methods of improving yield per cow are being introduced. According to an article earlier this year in India Knowledge at Wharton, MokshaYug Access (MYA), a Bangalore-based private company, is helping local farmers to improve their yields. “It is tough to convince families to move to MYA because of their long association with the state cooperative, but I am confident that over time, when they see the benefits that their neighbors are enjoying with MYA, they will be more open to this option,” the head of the MYA milk collection center in one village told India Knowledge at Wharton.

The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa face the toughest road to food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted in 2012 that, “Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region [of 76 studied] projected to have a sizable increase (15.1%) in the number of food-insecure people in the coming decade.” Among the reasons, according to a 2012 report by the FAO, is a lack of access to fertilizer. With badly degraded soil, fertilizer is essential to improving local agriculture, but a combination of market forces has driven up the price of fertilizer in the region until it is now the highest in the world, the FAO reported.

While some see modern large-scale farming — such as the kind practiced in the U.S. — as the answer to many of these problems, the drawbacks of industrial farming are well-documented. And simply trying to transfer techniques that have worked, however problematically, in this country to other parts of the world is “one of the huge mistakes we have made in the past,” Kelly said.

Some Guiding Principles

While each region must find its own path to food security a few fundamental principles seem clear. A report on the right to food prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Council identified three objectives that must be met to ensure global food security:

  • Food must be available to everyone.
  • Agricultural practices must be sustainable.
  • Agriculture must increase the incomes of small farmers.

The importance of this last objective is critical. As the report stated, “hunger today is mostly attributable not to stocks that are too low or to global supplies unable to meet demand, but to poverty. Increasing the incomes of the poorest is the best way to combat it.”

To meet these objectives, the UN report focused on the benefits of agroecology, which is defined as “both a science and a set of practices.” Using a variety of methods, agroecology increases agricultural productivity in ways that maintain biodiversity; conserve precious resources, including soil fertility; minimize negative impacts on the environment, and increase the resiliency of agriculture in the face of climate change. And agroecology, according to the report, also reduces rural poverty by reducing the need for costly external inputs and by creating jobs.

At the heart of agroecology, said Heather Karsten, a professor of plant science at Pennsylvania State University, is the use of ecological processes and principals. Based on science and practice, agroecology is not dogmatic about what is and is not acceptable. “We’re going to take a lot of ecological approaches,” noted Karsten, “but we’re not going to completely eliminate using pesticides and herbicides. We judiciously target using pesticides when necessary.”

Similarly, agroecology is not opposed to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that optimize certain traits and increase production. But these technologies are used judiciously only as needed to supplement such ecological approaches as the integration of livestock and forests into crop production, Karsten added.

Kopcinski noted that there are clear parallels between agroecology and the integrated approach to agriculture that FMC supports. She described it as “looking at the plant in a more holistic way, rather than just trying to treat a disease or insect problem. People realize that it’s not enough to just go and spray pesticides or give enough fertilizer if the plant variety is not right for the climactic conditions, if the soil is not prepared right, if there are not enough micro- and macronutrients and if the soil is not inhabited by all the bacteria, fungi and other organisms that plants need to thrive.”

Agroecology also stresses a holistic approach to agriculture at the societal level, emphasizing the need for improvements in infrastructure, education and access to markets. Helping small farmers become more productive, Kelly said, “requires a very substantial investment in infrastructure, policies that favor small farmers, research and information, and the involvement of the small farmers themselves in deciding what they need.” And it means helping them find ways — often by organizing into larger groups — to become more competitive, especially in urban markets.

The cell phone is already playing a key role, according to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), giving small farmers instant access to agricultural services, information and markets. Cell phones are proliferating throughout much of the developing world. The New York Times reported in March that, “Africa has a billion people and 750 million phones, and mobile is growing so fast there that in a few years there will be more phones than people.” With the help of several groups, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, small farmers are now using their cell phones to discover the best time to plant their seeds, to share new farming methods with each other and to learn the best market in which to sell their produce.

Education is essential to all of these approaches, experts noted. Investment in scientific research has to be reinvigorated, having been neglected when the Green Revolution seemed to have conquered the problem of hunger, and the results of this new research have to be made available to the small farmers. Extension service agents are critically important, but new research shows that what is even more important is the involvement of small farmers themselves. “Farmer-to-farmer education is often more effective,” said Karsten. “Famers are more comfortable accepting new practices if they see that their peers have been successful.”

Rikin Gandhi, an American-born software engineer, has created a platform and process called Digital Green, which has proven that showing short, locally produced videos featuring local farmers is highly effective, especially when followed up by facilitated group discussions. According to The New York Times, Digital Green has now produced 2,600 videos that have been viewed by 157,000 farmers throughout India, Ethiopia and Ghana. Forty-one percent of these viewers have adopted at least one new practice, and Gandhi is now working with 60 colleagues with plans to reach 10,000 villages by 2015.

Gandhi approaches this work scientifically, trying out new hypotheses that might improve the videos’ effectiveness and carefully tracking the results to evaluate the validity of each hoped-for improvement. This combination of technology, science, education and focus on local farmers embodies the fundamentals of an approach that has the potential to renew agriculture the world over and feed the planet’s growing population.

With hunger already rampant in much of the developing world, the rapid urbanization of the earth’s growing population will tax local agriculture in ways that neither traditional methods nor the technologies of the Green Revolution can address. New community-based, ecology-oriented approaches that harness the power of science, local knowledge and new technologies offer hope for a better future.