By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe
This commentary is part of a series organized by The Chicago Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative and the World Food Prize to examine the relationship between water, agriculture, and food security in the lead up to this year's Borlaug Dialogue.
As we mark World Food Day, we should seize the opportunity to reflect on the challenges we face. The conditions required to meet our fundamental need for food are far from basic and on the contrary, growing ever more complex. This is a subject that I will talk about in some detail tomorrow at the 2012 Borlaug Dialogue , as leading experts gather to consider ways to transform the global food security agenda.
If we are to secure enough food for all, we must start by taking a broader view that recognises the need to produce more food in a more resource-efficient way, particularly with regards to water as I have argued before on this blog. But we must also go beyond the issue of availability to enhance the quality of and knowledge about food – addressing the issue of nutrition.
Globally, we now face crises at both ends of the spectrum. With approximately 1.6 billion overweight and obese (according to the World Health Organisation), we have a crisis of ‘over nutrition’ whilst also struggling with the cause and consequences of acute under nutrition and micro-malnutrition.
With today’s food prices, the FAO estimates there are over one billion people who go to bed hungry and that since 2005 this number has been increasing. Added to this there is a new question about the quality of food, largely the lack of micronutrients that is affecting more than two billion people (WHO).
The impact of micronutrient deficiencies has the potential to be as devastating as that from lack of calories. According to UNICEF, between 1.9 and 2.7 million children die annually from lack of vitamin A alone, and up to half a million a year suffer from blindness. Micronutrient malnutrition is a time bomb: according to Save the Children, 450 million children will fail to develop properly – both physically and mentally – due to an inadequate diet.
These food pressures are being driven by a growing, increasingly prosperous population, for which we will fail to produce enough food of sufficient quality, at an affordable price, unless we first tackle the systemic overuse and misuse of water. As I have highlighted before, water is at the heart of this issue because agriculture is the biggest user of water by far. According to the FAO, it accounts for 70% of all withdrawals and globally, we are already withdrawing 10% more water than what is naturally renewed.
This year’s severe drought in the USA has brought the perilous effects of excessive water withdrawal to the fore,as I blogged about recently. The scenario beyond this is dire. Shortfalls in global cereal production of up to 30% will become a possibility, Frank Rijsberman, Director General of the International Water Management Institute has warned.
But as we consider these staggering figures, we must also not forget the quality dimension of food security. In cooperation with local governments, Nestlé has defined the most important micronutrients that need to be added to products, including our popularly positioned products. These are large numbers, as the chart illustrates, but small compared to global needs; we are only one company. Moreover, since we do not sell staple foods, we are too often not reaching the poorest of the poor.
To stand a chance of tackling this, we need to work in partnership, drive innovation and cultivate greater understanding. We must deploy solutions that already exist, such as Golden Rice which at no additional cost could provide the necessary amounts of vitamin A to people in countries with a rice culture. We must also develop better nutritional understanding starting in childhood. This is the starting point of our Global Healthy Kids initiative which operates in 60 countries, together with over 250 other organisations including NGOs, nutrition institutes, national sport federations and local governments.
Transforming the global food security agenda will of course not happen overnight; it requires substantive, multi-stakeholder solutions, not piecemeal quick fixes. I mentioned how malnutrition and under nutrition are acting like a time bomb; this should be the reason for acting now, not for holding off. Moreover, it is a challenge to which there is no silver bullet, and therefore I encourage you to contribute your thoughts, just as I have shared my own.