When it comes to global food security, safety and sufficiency, we would do well to follow the Boy Scouts motto: Be prepared.
World food security today is deteriorating. Climate change is accelerating, fresh water tables are falling, soil is eroding, and arable land is disappearing, making increasing the supply of food more challenging than ever before.
At the same time, the earth's population will ascend to 9.6 billion by 2050 from today's 7.2 billion, the U.N. projects. That's over 222,000 new mouths to feed every day, with an unprecedented 70% of people living in urban areas.
Urban areas are expected to triple in size in just the first three decades of this century, resulting in significant loss of agricultural lands and biodiversity hotspots. As people move to cities, shifts in income, prices and food availability result in greater demand for meat, dairy and eggs - foods that further increase pressure on agriculture land and fresh water resources. It takes 100 times more fresh water to produce one pound of animal protein than it does to produce one pound of grain protein, and takes on average 20 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible meat, according to the FAO.
Contrary to the popular thinking, producing enough food to go around the global dinner table is not the problem -- at least not now. The world currently produces 2,700 calories per person daily, which means that we would have ample food to feed the world's population if that food were evenly distributed. But it is not evenly distributed. People in rich countries over-consume while people in poor nations starve, and a hefty percentage of the world's grain crops end up as ethanol or animal feed. And one-third of all the food produced for human consumption every year is lost or wasted, according to the FAO.
Establishing a global food system that can feed humanity in ways that are socially responsible, environmentally sustainable, and enhance political stability will be one of the most important challenges of this century. People may be able to live without oil or other precious resources, but they cannot live without food. Rising food prices and food shortages will not only lead to human suffering and starvation, they may also cause food wars, political instability and revolutions.
The impact of rising food prices varies dramatically between rich and poor nations. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their incomes at the grocery store on average, rising food prices are a burden, but not an overwhelming one. For the world's poorest people, who spend as much as 60 to 80 percent of their incomes on food, rising food prices mean hunger and the risk of disease and death. Price increases that barely cause a ripple in the first world may cause political upheaval or revolutions in the third.
To maintain or increase food supply, farmers around the world are draining aquifers for crop irrigation. This artificially inflates food production levels in the short run, creating "food bubbles" that will burst when slowly-replenishable or non-replenishable aquifers are depleted. Saudi Arabia is one of the nations with water-based food bubbles. Irrigation empowered Saudi Arabia to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than two decades, but today the aquifers are almost empty and soon the Saudis will have to import all of their grain.
Today half of the world's population lives in countries where water tables are falling. There are eighteen nations with water-based food bubbles, with the largest food bubbles in China and India, Lester Brown reported in Foreign Policy. In India, farmers have drilled 20 million irrigation wells to produce food to feed 175 million Indians. Many of these wells are now starting to go dry. In China, 130 million Chinese depend on food produced using water from rapidly depleting aquifers in the North China Plain.
Now more than ever, we are an interconnected world facing a future that will inevitably include food shortages and price increases. Until 1995, the U.S. always had either the grain surpluses or the idle cropland needed to rescue countries at risk of famine. Today those resources are no longer available. The world's food "safety cushion," as Brown calls it, is gone.
There is currently no organized global effort or organization dedicated to ensuring the adequacy of the world's food system. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gathers and analyzes critical information about food, agriculture and natural resources, shares policy expertise, and provides a neutral forum where rich and poor nations can meet to discuss food issues and crises -- but they have no power or framework to facilitate solutions to major challenges, or fixes to the root causes of dysfunction in our global food system.
That's why I believe we need a new global agency focused on ensuring the adequacy of the world's food system. Imagine a food-and-nutrition focused version of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In the wake of World War II, the IMF was created to promote sustainable economic growth and stability, foster global monetary cooperation, reduce poverty and facilitate international trade. Today we need a global institution that will accomplish for food what the IMF does for money: oversee the evolution of our global food system, monitor food and agriculture policies for the common good, and facilitate action when necessary.