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Can Tech Solve the World’s Biggest Crisis?

The world’s population is projected to hit 9 billion in 2050. One would think this produces a dilemma on how to provide for such a large population; more importantly how to feed them. Yet we already grow enough food annually to feed over 10 billion people according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture. However, according to the UN, 815 million people still go hungry each year; Oxfam estimates that number to be 925 million.

These facts are polar opposites because we waste so much food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), human beings waste 1.3 billion tonnes of food each year. That’s a third of the annual food production. Food losses amount to $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 million in developing countries. That is a staggering amount of food to be wasted when so many are going hungry.

The reality of the global food crisis is this: inefficient production and distribution of food is the cause of armed conflict, mass deaths or even a major war. Make the supply chain more effective and independent, and peace still has a chance.

Conflicts and Wars

The hungriest populations in the world are concentrated in Asia and the Pacific region; two-thirds of them to be exact. And 65% of the hungry population of the earth is situated in China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia.

The first five of the seven countries mentioned are some of the most populous nations on Earth.

If huge swathes of these populations remain unfed, there could be huge conflicts.

Experts point to revolutions such as the 1917 revolution in Russia beginning with long bread lines as inflation grew beyond controllable levels and the recent Arab Spring that began in

Tunisia the same way. The Syrian drought of 2006-11, the subsequent rise of ISIS and the resulting Exodus to Europe is another recent example of acute food and water shortages radicalizing a region.

Food shortage could especially radicalize areas that are similarly hosts to terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. The latter poses a greater threat since it is based in Africa, an area particularly ravaged by conflict over food.

Qaisar Arafat Anwar is a Humanitarian Campaigns Coordinator for Oxfam. He pointed out that though major conflicts over food may not arise in the near future, they may become a reality within the next quarter of a century. He referenced the volatile situation in Central Africa and the region named the Horn of Africa which is facing a major food crisis. This, he believes, is the strongest signal that war over food is approaching.

In fact, according to a UN report, more than half of those living in food-insecure areas (489 million) were living in major conflict areas. Add to that, the fact that since 2010, the state-based conflict has increased by 60% and armed conflict by 125% worldwide, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Hybrid Crops

Hybrid crops have been touted as a solution to the hunger crisis by scientists and private companies. Crops can be cross-bred and modified through genetic engineering to grow in climates that were previously hostile to them, withstand extreme weather and increase yields by up to 20% without any increase in resources.

Private companies like Monsanto, the largest producer of GMOs in the world and Bayer, AgriPro Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer which are currently working on wheat hybrids for the US are setting the stage for a new agricultural revolution. Similar efforts are also being carried out by major governments like India and China, which operate national seed companies like Mahyco and Guard Agri respectively.

The results coming in are already promising. Hybrid rice produces 15% higher yields in China than conventional varieties, a hybrid variety of tomato plant grown in the US produces 60% more tomatoes than ordinary varieties and hybrid varieties of corn developed by Monsanto have yielded significantly greater production of corn over the last decade. Even countries in Africa like Kenya have benefitted from the hybrid maize crop, with yields rising by 85% for farmers that regularly planted hybrid seeds and 30% for those that did not regularly use hybrid varieties.

The case against these hybrid seeds, however, is their cost. Hybrid seeds must be continuously purchased by farmers, and in larger volumes by governments themselves. Hybrid crops do not produce seeds that are as potent or effective as those of the parent generation, while local, non-hybrid varieties produce seeds that can be salvaged for the next crop planting cycle. This is the reason that hybrid crop adoption by farmers is often the result of government intervention through welfare programs because it is simply too expensive for them to do it on their own.

Qaisar echoes the sentiments of the farmers. “Hybrid crops sound nice, but they cost too much.” He believes that this “solution” to low food yields is much less effective than advertised. He does acknowledge that there is compounded yield increase if regular use of hybrid crops continues, but the hole poked in the pocket of the individual farmer is often too great for him to bear.

International Food Aid and Food Banks

Food banks and governments around the world contribute billions in food aid annually, $135.1 billion according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. While this may not be a permanent solution to the problem, however, it does alleviate the suffering of millions.

The European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA) is made up of 300 food banks that provide 2.9 million meals every day. Sometimes, 25% of the organization’s expenses are eaten up by freight alone. A similar endeavor is being undertaken by the Feeding America Network, which aims to distribute 1.7 billion meals a year via produce by 2025.

The World Food Program of the United Nations assists nearly 80 million people and received approximately $6.8 billion in contributions from 96 countries around the world in 2017. Each year it purchases 2 million metric tons of food and distributes 12.6 billion rations at an average cost of $0.31.

Qaisar mentioned that a major force in food aid is BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee), the largest Non-Governmental Organization in the world. Operating in 14 countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas and employing over 100,000 people, the NGO provides humanitarian services to over 120 million people. They provided food aid to 50,000 people during the 2010 floods in Pakistan.

As mentioned before, food aid alleviates the problem of world hunger but does not solve it. And so, there are subtle markers as to how food aid helps people, for example, the population of children that are affected by stunted growth because of malnutrition has decreased from 198 million in 2000 to 156 million in 2015 (a decrease of 21 %).

On the other hand, some argue that international food aid has hurt food ravaged nations rather than easing their suffering. Angus Deaton, celebrated economist and the 2015 winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics has expressed his disdain for humanitarian aid. He says that the aid provided gives power to the rulers of developing nations because it lessens their dependency on taxes collected from the public. He cites the fact that foreign aid to Africa has soared since the 1980s and 1990s but the continent’s economies are still some of the worst performing in the world. The foreign aid is used to support despots and dictators and actually slows economic growth in the region.

The Road Ahead

The UN has termed ‘Ending Hunger’ as the second of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030 and the FAO has estimated that if just one-fourth of the food currently being wasted is saved, it could feed the hundreds of millions going to sleep hungry every day. It’s not the production of food and water that is the problem; it’s the distribution of it that is the challenge. The supply-chain solutions, track and trace and other innovations are what will make a difference in how many people die of hunger.

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