For decades, humanity made progress on hunger and malnutrition. But the COVID-19 pandemic has reversed this trend. And going forward there is a simple equation: the world will need to produce about 70 per cent more food by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people
Since 1990, there have been plenty of good news stories in the battle against malnutrition and hunger. For example, the worldwide prevalence of stunting—where children are too short for their height due to malnutrition—declined from 40 per cent in 1990, to 22 percent in 2020.
But progress is not always a one-way street, and the spectre of a reversal of fortune began to appear in 2014. Since that year, food insecurity has grown ‘consistently’ according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). And by 2020, there were 60 million more undernourished people than in 2014. The factors driving this reversal included the impact of the 2008-09 financial crisis, dependence on commodity imports, conflicts, changing weather, and pests.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The UN estimates that, worldwide, an additional 70 to 161 million are likely to have experienced hunger as a result of the pandemic. Already in 2020, before the impact of the pandemic, as many as 811 million people faced hunger. It is therefore, no wonder that the FAO is forecasting worrying increases in the number of undernourished people. Add to that the long-term challenges caused by population growth and climate change, and it is clear that SDG 2, which sets the aim of zero hunger, is more important than ever.
Agricultural production, hunger and malnutrition are complex issues, but innovation is set to play an important role in ensuring that we are able to feed the world’s population and reverse the current alarming trends.
Target 2.2 within SDG 2, sets the goal of ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030. Yet, according to pre-pandemic figures from 2020, 22 per cent of children under five are stunted (too short for their age) and 6.7 per cent suffer from wasting (meaning they have low weight for their height).
Food fortification—where food is enriched by nutrient-laden additives—is one way to tackle malnutrition. And innovators have been working to develop different approaches and processes to harness its potential. In Spain, Origen Farms is raising crickets for use as a protein-rich additive for flour and other products. Elsewhere, BioAnalyst has developed a portable tool to analyse the nutritional content of fortified food, and social enterprise Sanku provides small-scale maize millers in Africa with smart technology to fortify their flour without passing the costs on to consumers.
Food fortification needs to be supported by long-term structural improvements. Target 2.3 within SDG 2 sets the challenge of doubling the productivity and income of small-scale food producers by 2030. Of the world’s 570 million farms, 84 per cent have less than 2 hectares of land. And small farms produce one-third of the world’s food.
One of the key issues small farmers face is access to finance. In Africa, less than 10 per cent of smallholder farmers have their economic needs met by the financial sector. To tackle this, innovators around the world are making finance more accessible. For example, in Brazil, one startup is using satellite data and climate data to help small farmers access cheaper credit. Another issue is access to markets, and, in Ghana, an online marketplace directly connects smallholders to buyers.
Climate change adaptation
Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts such as extreme weather and pests. If our agricultural system is to continue to support our growing population, innovations that help farmers adapt to climate change are essential. Many small farms rely on increasingly unpredictable rainfall for irrigation. In response, a British social enterprise has developed solar-powered water pumps specifically designed for smallholders. The pumps gather data that is being used to help governments develop more accurate water policies. Biotech can also play a part in building resilience to climate change. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered that a naturally occurring gene can grow plants that are more resilient to drought.
Genetic diversity in crops, livestock, and their wild counterparts is an important issue in farming – as enshrined in target 2.5. Just nine plant species account for 66 per cent of total crop production, and farming monocultures are leading to an alarming collapse in biodiversity.
In response, innovators are developing ways to create mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and wild eco-systems. For example, in Honduras, instead of clearing the forest, coffee growers are including it as part of the coffee farm – an approach that increases both biodiversity and crop yields. And initiatives such as the PUR Poject are encouraging large international corporations to invest in regenerative agriculture and agroforestry in their supply chains.
Words: Matthew Hempstead
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10th May 2022