“The quest for food security can be the common thread that links the different challenges we face and help build a sustainable future.” – José Graziano da Silva, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General
Agrofest 2019 has just recently concluded and with its passing, this brings the spectre of food security to the forefront of my mind. The population in Barbados is growing though at an emaciated rate of 0.25 per cent per annum. We are a high-priced domicile with an inflation rate that has quadrupled from 7.8 per cent in 2018 to north of 30 per cent with the new tax and measures implemented as part of the sovereign debt restructuring package. We are also highly dependent on tourism for most of our foreign exchange earnings; that industry is, of course, highly food dependent. This compounds the problem further.
One of our greatest challenges as a net importer of all things is the ability to feed ourselves, visitors and successive generations. It is a real risk that needs to be planned for as part of the country’s national business continuity plan. We should remember that even at a pedestrian growth rate of three per cent, a country’s size will double in 25 years.
By 2040, the world’s population is predicted to rise to nine billion. That means two billion more mouths to feed. Even now, the earth groans under the weight of those numbers. More than 800 million people are malnourished. Another two billion are short of essential micronutrients, which affect health. A billion more consume too many calories and are obese.
In Barbados, our health care is under siege with citizens as young as 16 years old showing signs of being pre-diabetic. Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases which are also called the ‘life-style diseases’ and their close correlation to cardiovascular disease dominate our mortality rates and health challenges that require long-term palliative care.
There was a time when environmental groups would be screaming about the need to grow more and eat green. Research groups at Oxford University, supported by the British Foreign Office, recently completed a study and expressed ‘extreme concern’ about the future of the world’s food supply, and what it means not only for our environment, but for the stability of financial markets and the political stability of hundreds of millions of people, primarily in the developing countries, who are increasingly subject to food shocks around the world.
There are three main reasons why the productivity of existing farmland will need to dramatically increase in the next 40 years.
1. The world’s population is unlikely to stabilise this century and is on course to reach up to 12 billion by 2100. That’s double the existing population and a lot of people to feed.
2. The economic growth, urbanisation and rising affluence of developing and emerging economies are driving “nutrition transitions” towards more Western diets rich in sugar, animal fat and protein. Note that it takes 2.5 to 100 times more resources to produce energy and protein from livestock than from grain.
3. There is limited scope for significantly expanding agricultural land after constraints and trade-offs are considered. The incorporation of new lands into production is likely to come with important social and ecological constraints and costs.
So, how are we likely to deal with the challenge? Given our land and capital constraints, Barbados, and I daresay the world, has to increase agricultural yields per acre of land. I wrote on sugar in my last article, showing that sugar yields in Barbados per acre of cane are a quarter that of Brazil and Guatemala. The production price is also six times higher in Barbados. This makes our challenge even greater in a globalised world environment where any attempt to protect an industry yields global trade sanctions.
There is a gap between present farming yields and the increased yields that could be achieved from applying good agronomic management. Closing this gap is called “reducing yield or productivity gaps”. We know that reducing productivity gaps alone is likely to help us meet nearly half of the required demand by 2050.
Lifting agricultural productivity and food supply were listed as key practical actions by the G20 leaders when they met in Buenos Aires last year. They pushed the concept of supporting food security and economic growth in low-income countries as a way to generate opportunities for investment and trade globally, such as “aid for trade”.
For example, economic growth in Africa was set to reach 5.2 per cent in 2019 with rising investment growth in natural resources and infrastructure, and strong household spending. But increasing land and water productivity should not come at the expense of the environment or people’s sources of livelihoods, both human and natural.
The sustainable intensification of agriculture has always been proposed as a possible solution. This is producing more food from existing arable land in a way that the future production potential and livelihoods of our communities are not undermined and the environment is not affected.
For example, better matching crops, varieties and management to seasonal conditions is likely to increase productivity and reduce risks both in small holder and large-scale commercial agriculture. This is nothing new, but agriculture in Barbados is still seen as a legacy career or one of last resort. That will change dramatically in the future as it becomes the most important feature of our existence.
But targets, time-frames, measurable indicators and methods necessary to achieve sustainable intensification remain loosely defined. As a country we have done little more than talk. This inhibits any informed analyses of emerging trade-offs between the multiple functions of agriculture: food and fibre production, environmental and socio-economic outputs. It is clear that the quantification and analysis of these trade-offs will require new thinking beyond the traditionally restricted focus upon raising yields.
Clearly, the first challenge is breaking down disciplinary silos of knowledge. This will allow a wider range of scientists to work with a wide range of stakeholders further to farmers, including environmentalists, agri-businesses, industry, NGOs and governments. Also, any practical interventions and technologies required are likely to differ depending on each farming community’s circumstances. There is no silver bullet that could be applied across the myriad of situations.
For example, three simple and complementary entry points addressing the multiplicity of production and socioeconomic situations could include:
1. For poorly resourced farmers, it is paramount that production efficiencies of their limited assets are improved. For this group, basic information on “best fit” crop agronomy, livestock husbandry and climate risk management should be prioritised.
2. Further increases in productivity can be achieved among the better resourced and skilled farmers by generating the incentives for them to invest in more profitable and risk-efficient practises, and a mix of farm enterprises.
3. Where productivity gaps have been narrowed down already, more significant or transformation changes might be required. This will involve the design of new farming systems that are able to further intensify the use of land and water or add value to existing produce.
All productivity increases will have to be judged against gains in environmental and ecosystem services. This will help us to protect critical factors such as water quality, environmental flows, pollination services, soil quality and natural fisheries.
Sustainable intensification targets should also include nutritional, social and community outcomes. The current dynamic of men seeking urban jobs, and the youth moving away from agriculture has severely hobbled the industry. We, as a country, must find a method to create a consistent work force for this industry. As unpopular as the concept is if locals have no interest in ‘field’ work then we need to accept non-nationals doing the work.
This is not a public sector or government problem. It is the country’s problem. Consequently, it requires a private-public partnership solution. Investing in capacity building must remain a priority for the sustainable intensification of agriculture.
But the responsibility to improve agriculture through R&D can no longer be dominated by the public sector. Public-private partnerships will be crucial drivers for future technological innovation and capacity building in the agriculture sector globally. Partnerships with NGOs will be important to reach high numbers of marginal and smallholder farmers in emerging economies.
We have made some progress over the years, but we are already in a position where we are unable to feed ourselves. This is the first risk. How do we respond to external agricultural shocks, when they occur, not if, as they will happen? How will that impact our tourism industry? Do we need to transition our taste and that of our visitors to locally grown fruit and vegetables? When will we have enough for sustenance as we are too small for export?
With the world population exploding, small, open, independent countries like Barbados will become highly vulnerable to being last on the list. We have to take our food into our own hands.
George Connolly is a Finance and Technology professional.