If all the supermarkets and restaurants in your neighborhood closed their doors tomorrow, would you know how to source your next meal? Would you be able to survive in a world without a local grocery store or eatery? While the thought of losing your local market may seem extreme, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are faced with the daily challenge of finding the food to fuel their day. According to the World Food Program, there are nearly 805 million undernourished people in the world today and one in nine people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.
While a family of local farmers and communities thousands of miles away may seem disconnected from your daily meal, that is all but certain to change in the years ahead. In a globalized and highly interconnected world, the domino effects from a crop shortage in a far away place can impact prices and supplies at your local supermarket. For example, according to the crop estimate committee this year's white corn supply in South Africa, the world's largest producer of the white variety after Mexico, is set to shrink 32 percent from 2014's harvest, the biggest drop in 33 years. The limited global availability of white corn raises prices in South Africa, but can also impact prices in China or Japan where large amounts of corn are imported. In today's world, a single failure in one agricultural sector can have global ramifications far and wide.
In the words of Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, "The threats to our future now are climate change, population growth, water shortages, poverty, rising food prices and failing states." A new study by researchers at NASA and the University of California, Irvine, finds global warming is rapidly melting section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appears to be in an irreversible state of decline. With 23 percent of the world's population live in coastal areas and big portions of farmland (especially rice) cultivated on the coasts, the rising sea levels from melting ice can destroy that farmland and displace population, adding more strain on an already struggling system. The impact of a changing climate in the developing world affects the agricultural sector heavily, putting an immense cost on poor farmers who do not have insurance or the resources to rebuild their lives after floods, droughts or other extreme events, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). The importance of reliable, affordable food is why each and everyone one of us should care today about the changing climate.
Armed conflicts and civil instability are also causing food insecurity situations. In communities ranging from the Philippines to Colombia conflicts are forcing many farmers off of their fields and into refugee settlements, and that can amplify the international domino effect of food prices and availability. In conflict-affected parts of Colombia, farming has become nearly impossible. In the Philippines fighting between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a rebel group, have forced more than 120,000 people to flee their homes since late January according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The small-scale farmers, fishermen and agricultural based communities like those in the Philippines and Colombia not only depend on their land to survive, but their labours account for most of the outputs that feed the rest of the world.
What can international leaders do in the face of this growing food crisis? A strengthened focus on environmental sustainability and internally displaced peoples is needed, but planning for adaptation to a worsening situation is also required, as the impact is already being felt. The advance of mobile communication allows international organizations and local institutions to assess the situation in even the most disconnected areas where food crisis are happening in real time. The World Food Program, in partnership with InSTEDD, is working on automated food security surveys, taking weekly samples from different beneficiaries of food assistance and analyzing their needs and context. How well they have been eating? What was the intake of foods? This type of real-time two way information can improve assistance to communities that are most vulnerable while also informing international agencies of where the food insecurity situation is most pressing.
What can you do as a consumer? A deeper understanding of where your food comes from is a first step. By buying from local producers, you contribute to strengthen the self-reliance of your region while reducing the dependence on food imports and at the same time minimizing the carbon footprint of your food. Try to buy most of your food from organic farms (fertilizer overuse creates soil acidification which in turns reduces yields and pollutes water, killing fish and other food sources) and buying in season reduces the chances that your food is being transported from far away. Consider what it might take to become self reliant, even a hobby garden can help you get closer to how your food is grown and allow you to be more knowledgeable and aware of the rising food insecurity problem.
Want more information on the Food Security issue? Check out the World Food Program food security report.