9 September, 2020
The statistics are crushing, according to all experts, the world’s current population of 7.6 billion will reach 8.6 billion by 2030. Furthermore, there are currently about 820 million people in situations of famine and starvation, just over 10% of the global population, which means that current problems with feeding the whole of the world will only increase in line with future demographic forecasts. This does not even take into account the devastating consequences of COVID-19, especially in the world’s poorest countries.
At the same time, the 2030 Agenda, the international action plan in favour of the planet and prosperity, bases its 17 indicators of sustainable development on the good management and governance of a multitude of variables which will attempt to achieve those goals in said year.
In this complex scenario that is unfolding, farming plays a key and fundamental role, and in coming years will have to deal with one of the greatest challenges it has ever been faced with. It is clear that the only way of feeding the current and future population is through primary activities such as agriculture, livestock farming and fishing, and its importance is such that several of the sustainable development goals incorporated in the 2030 Agenda are based on farming activities for their achievement, especially the indicators of goal two: zero hunger.
Paradoxically, the supposed prominence that ought to be given to farming as the main tool for eradicating hunger, has been overshadowed by a reduction of countries’ investment in this sector; countries that on the one hand embrace the fight against hunger and poverty, advocating sustainable and quality farming production, but on the other hand abandon the sector by supporting other production sectors and industries, gradually shrinking the amount invested in farming with respect to annual GDP.
Currently 37% of the world’s land is farmland, and only 11% is arable. An added problem is the considerable fragmentation of this land, given that 85% of farming operations occupy fewer than 2 hectares. On a separate note, depopulation and the rural exodus, which particularly affects industrialised countries, means that just 28% of all jobs globally are devoted to farming activities, whereas the figure was 34% just ten years ago.
The advancing desertification of certain areas and phenomena associated to climate change mean that every year millions of people are displaced because it is impossible for them to obtain food from their land, because of the imbalance in the distribution of wealth, the lack of training and means, and the international problems related to the market for farming produce (tariffs, health barriers, traceability, etc.,) which make agricultural production and its subsequent distribution inequitable.
Farming 4.0 and technological innovation are the keys to feeding the world sustainably
The time has come to turn efficacy into efficiency. It is no longer enough to meet basic production requirements and to develop current processes to an acceptable standard; we need to take a step forward to achieve maximum efficiency, and to produce more with fewer resources. Farming referred to as 4.0 and all technological advances available to us will help is to make the right strategic decisions to deal with producing an increased quantity of food with a lower energetic and climate cost, sustainably and in a way that reduces resources to a maximum. Concepts such as the blue economy, circular economy or carbon footprint zero are discussed quite naturally, but their direct application is still far from being sufficiently widespread and tangible throughout the entire farming sector.
Farmers must always have innovation in mind if we want to feed the whole of the forecast population in 2030 because an increase of close to 50% of production will be required in order to attain this goal. The growth in arable land, increased production and improved management of all links in the value chain, will create the synergies needed to meet this ambitious challenge. We cannot forget however that, on a global scale, the speed of progress in this primary sector differs enormously depending on the part of the globe we are in, as a major proportion of the arable land is in countries where farming represents a subsistence economy and where farmers lack training and technological means, resulting in drastically reduced yields with respect to those obtained in the industrialised world Despite this, farming operations are the direct form of sustenance for more than 500 million small farmers and their families, and provide revenue that provides access to other services such as education, health and sanitation services, water, etc.
In this context, farming must also fight against existing prejudices regarding production, especially derived from the way in which it affects the environment. We cannot fail to point out that farming is the main source of water contamination by nitrates, phosphates and pesticides; in the last 10 years fertilizer use has increased by 20 Kg/ha, farming represents 70% of global water consumption and close to 3 million people die per year from exposure to pesticides; livestock farming is responsible for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions and 80% of farmland is dedicated to pasture and cattle feed production, although on the other hand, it is also true that this livestock farming activity sustains 1.3 billion people all over the world.
Consumers must become co-responsible for achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda.
Finally, it would be unfair to analyse the importance of farming in eradicating world hunger, without mentioning consumers’ co-responsibility. Despite searching for innovation, efficacy, efficiency and improved cultural practices to produce more and better using fewer resources and with a minimal environmental impact, it will be impossible to succeed in the challenge represented by goal two of the 2030 Agenda without consumers’ collaboration.
At present, a third of the food that is produced ends up in the trash. Numerous trade wars between countries use farming products as a political weapon with the collusion of their citizens and their boycotting; consumers are unwilling to reduce their high consumption of animal protein, 1 in every 8 people worldwide suffer from obesity, and consumers’ perception of a product’s quality means that a large proportion of food is wasted in order to satisfy that perception. These are some of the factors that make it difficult to align strategies for the production, distribution and consumption of agricultural produce to achieve the desired objectives.
Unless eating habits change, along with international trade policies, investments for the farming and livestock sectors, and comprehensive management of the value chain, and unless farming is granted the role it merits in this context, we run the risk of having future generations who believe that an industrial factory is needed to produce one kilo of tomatoes and that current and future sustenance can only be guaranteed in this way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sergio de Román
Director of Farming, Fisheries and Food of Incatema Consulting & Engineering