Will Technology feed 10 Billion People?

This is the transcript of a presentation Fiona Johnson gave at the International Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Uzbekistan 5-6th June 2014.

Fiona Johnson Vellag Ltd at Conference

Fiona Johnson MD of Vellag Ltd

Has anyone here been hungry?

Really hungry?

870 million people on earth are going hungry every day

We have heard some marvellous stories about how crop yields are going to improve but are they going to make a difference?

Humans have always been hungry.  Initially as a species, it is thought that all our time was occupied with getting food. As we evolved into more sophisticated societies, less time needed to be spent acquiring food and humans could develop other ideas such as sport, art and education.  Typically today, in the UK, 1.5% of the population are involved in growing food which accounts for 60% of the UK’s consumption. Global average about 25% of the population are farmers with this rising to 70% in some developing countries.

So the more advanced we are a society, the less we are involved in growing food.

Looking at the causes of hunger.

Causes of hunger are varied.  Poverty causes hunger as lack of money to buy food means you don’t eat.  Sometimes food is not available to buy (or steal) as in Zimbabwe in the late 2000’s and the now defunct USSR some twenty five years ago. I remember seeing the pictures on the news when I was a child.

War and conflict are cause of hunger among other miseries.  Starvation can and is used as a weapon of war and one that is aimed at women, children and the old.  The men bearing the weapons hold the power in these situations and can divert all food for their own purposes.  War means that families cannot settle and produce their own food from the land.  Crops and animals are burnt as a means of destroying the enemy both in the present and in the future.  Food aid supplied by donor agencies often does not reach the intended targets as it is diverted by the militia with the guns. International pressure to ease conflict and create stable political environments would go a long way to preventing hunger for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Natural disasters such as drought, pestilence, fire and flood destroy crops and livestock which creates hunger. These are situations where “cure” such as emergency food aid is necessary to prevent further crisis and it would be inhumane to refuse assistance to dying people.  Food aid is very short term crisis management solution – it is far better to give (wo)man the means to catch a fish than the fish itself.

Encouraging farmers to farm in a way that creates food security is the best way forward for preventing global hunger especially in the developing world.

Investment in education and infrastructure to make sustainable farms for communities not just to survive, but thrive should be at the forefront of preventing hunger.

There is a trend at the moment towards mechanisation in farming in the developing world.  The idea that big fancy tractors and expensive inputs are what are needed to feed the world, is encouraged by agribusinesses, fertilizer and seed companies, tractor manufacturers and oil producers.  In other words, all the commercially interested parties who see the opportunity to make a profit from new and unexploited markets.

A lot of modern farming techniques are very damaging to our most precious resources, namely soil and water.  Soil cannot be replaced once its gone and it is disappearing at an alarming rate in both the developed and developing world. If someone could develop a replacement soil, that would be a great use of technology.

Looking after the soil by planting the right kind of plants to fix nitrogen as a natural fertilizer in crop rotations, manuring correctly and good grassland management all make a big difference to crop yields.  Rearing animals with good husbandry techniques also increase food security.  Animals are a great source of food and by- products include free fertilizer!  All these basic techniques don’t cost anything extra, only the impartation of knowledge.

Traditional farming practices have successfully fed the populations of the world for many thousands of years.  However, the population has gone from just under 4 billion when I was born to 7 billion last year. In 2050, the FAO are predicting a population of 9 billion.

Can the world keep up with feeding so many mouths.

Our species seems designed to waste things.  Over 50% of all food stuff is wasted according to one statistic.  This also includes orange peel and discarded parts that can’t be consumed. Isn’t that a free place to start preventing waste. In the UK, the average family discards USD 1,155 of food each year.  1.3 bn people subsist on less than a dollar a day. So 3 people subsist on the amount of food a UK family discards each year.  This is disgraceful.

We have developed new technology that could be applied for the benefit of humans, to reduce crop and animal disease and to grow plants that are drought, pest and disease resistant.  Soil analysis – matching the right seeds and fertilisers to the ground is a brilliant thing to do. Mechanisation to take the hard work out of farming. Farming is literally back breaking as a lifetime job.

Technology is a great thing when applied altruistically and not for commercial exploitation of vulnerable people.

 

Hunger can be prevented and should be prevented.  By utilising the knowledge of sustainable farming practices to create great growing conditions. Enhancing what we used to do with  modern technology we can created the right environment to feed everyone –  a cure for global hunger.

 Written by Fiona Johnson

May 2014