Feeding Nine Billion People
Husna T. Ghani
Are you ready to share the planet with nine billion people? Well you better make room because the Global Hunger Index has reported that in ten years we will reach eight billion and in thirty years we will hit nine billion. Is our food production sustainable? We’ve all heard the term sustainability, in grocery stores, in the news, in political debates, and in tenth grade biology class. So what is food sustainability? Food sustainability means to avoid depleting our food production resources so they can feed the growing global population while employing the best ecological, economic, and social practices without interfering with the environment. I know what you’re thinking; we have already failed. Hope is a part of our faith so let’s read further.
How do we secure food for a growing planet? We do this by understanding the factors affecting food sustainability: ecology, economy, and society. Ecology is the obvious one. We know that soil and air quality affect farming. A main ecological factor is climate. The climate is changing. Rising temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns make farming more challenging. Technologically advanced nations are combating this by using greenhouses, complex fertilizers, and advanced irrigation methods. However, regions without resources are struggling with their crops. According to Farhana Khan, a chemical engineer, “the increase in chemical usage over the years such as pesticides, plastics, gasoline, lead, and chemical fertilizers has enabled them to seep into and negatively affect the quality of the soil. The increase in hydrochloric and sulfuric acids in the soil results in soil compacting. This prevents air circulation and drainage, thus making it less fertile.”
The economy plays a big part in food sustainability. As countries become wealthier, the consumption, production, and acquisition of food increase. Wealthy countries have the financial resources to create fertile farming with equipment and technology. Whatever they do not produce, they have the money to import from other nations. However, wealthy countries also waste food because of inadequate food production systems. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), we do have enough food in the world to sustain our current population. Their research shows that “global agriculture produces 17% more calories per person today than 30 years ago.” We can imagine the obvious economic conditions and lifestyle that affect food security in nations that are still developing or have limited financial means. I know what you’re thinking; why can’t wealthy nations share excess food and technology with poor nations? We need to change the global mindset from focusing on donations and aid to focusing on human rights and dignity. The UN and other think tanks develop Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). These SDG’s need to eliminate discrimination and embrace equality. Marginalized groups such as women, minorities, migrants, elderly, and indigenous people need to be included in sustainability goals. Excluded groups need a place at the table…literally and figuratively. According to the FAO, women produce the most food, distribute the most food, and cook the most food, yet are the most poor globally because they are not part of the SDG framework. Poverty prevents the production, purchase, and consumption of food which leads to a vicious cycle. The “father of microfinance”, Muhammad Yunus, thought about this same dilemma. His approach to including marginalized communities into the framework has sprouted the term “microloan”. When low income farmers borrow money from conventional creditors to buy farming equipment and seeds for their small farms they are unable to sell their crops at a price that can repay the loans, therefore causing them to incur large debts. This is a huge dilemma in developing nations like India, Bangladesh, and parts of Africa. So how do we break this cycle? Microloans. In his book, Banker To The Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, Yunus discusses how the economy of poverty stricken villages can be improved by lending small amounts of money to people, specifically female farmers and entrepreneurs. He noticed there was land but the villagers were not farming the land. He initially took it upon himself to loan small amounts of money (many ranging less than $30) to get the villagers their much needed start. As his idea grew, he included more individuals to join the cause. There were no “banks” or middlemen or high interest rates. Also the reason why Yunus decided to loan the money instead of donating it was to teach the poor about sustainability. He wanted to create a system where these same villagers could one day offer microloans to others, thus creating a sustainable economy in villages. Social entrepreneurship and the concepts of social economics are vital considerations when investing because food sustainability brings economic growth and economic growth is sustainable if all nations have the ability to produce, sell, and consume food. So the question is not “do we have enough food?” The question is “do we have equity in design?”
Society greatly affects food sustainability. Although we have discussed ecology and the economy, we could probably put most of the factors under the “society” category. Restaurants are advertising “in season, locally grown” foods. Foods that are “in season” refer to being produced in the natural production season, thereby minimizing the environmental cost and maximizing a consistent supply of fresh produce. Conflict and war, deforestation, and certain manufacturing practices have affected sustainability by cutting off food supplies, destroying crops, ruining soil, polluting water sources, and poisoning marine life.
We can have a positive impact on food sustainability if we prioritize it on a local, national, and global level. There are non-governmental organizations working to improve food sustainability and security that can and should be supported. These include the UN, OxFam, Islamic Relief, Feeding America, and many smaller organizations. The Green Revolution started circa WWII to improve agricultural yields in Mexico and eventually crossed oceans over to India and Pakistan in order to help produce high yielding grains resistant to insects and diseases. The Blue Revolution refers to using food sources from the oceans and other bodies of water to provide nutrition, ideally keeping in line with not harming the habitats of the sea creatures. Greenhouses can be used in extreme weather to grow crops in climate controlled environments. Irrigation systems can help farmers combat low levels of rainfall by bringing in water from wells, springs, rivers, or lakes. Remember doing science experiments in middle school using hydroponics and aeroponics? These techniques can be used on a larger scale. Hydroponics uses porous materials to grow plants without soil and aeroponics is when plants are suspended in the air and their roots are misted with water and nutrients. Biotechnology has helped by producing disease resistant crops and developing substitutes for resource intensive items like animal derived rennet used to make cheese. We do need to be responsible in our use of technology to avoid detrimental long term impact on food supplies.
So what does all this cost and who is picking up the bill? This gets tricky because nobody wants to lose money or comfort because they don’t think it’s their problem. That’s why we need to change the mindset when making strategic plans regarding food production, food distribution, and food maintenance. We have to redesign the United Nations’ SDG’s to include all communities. We need to restructure the goals and the framework while losing the hero and savior complex. The question now is: how do we make society understand that ensuring food sustainability for everyone while keeping the environment intact for all is not a choice, rather, it is an accountability and a human rights issue? Governments need to focus on these important matters and we need to do our part by holding elected officials accountable. We must educate ourselves and then educate others. If governments will not listen, then elect people who will. Support and work with NGO’s. Lobby and demand better. Use your spending power wisely and make companies take notice. The future is now. We think of 2030 and 2050 being “Jetsons” light years away but remember when we thought the same thing about 2020? Well 2020 is only a few months away and 2030 and 2050 are not far behind.
The population will increase to nine billion within the next thirty years and we still have not successfully secured food for the seven billion people currently inhabiting this planet and not because we do not have the resources. Resolving this is not only necessary, it is an important Sunnah. Ibn ‘Abbas told Ibn az-Zubayr, “I heard the Prophet, peace be upon him, say, “A man is not a believer who fills his stomach while his neighbor is hungry.” Let us lead the way by implementing this sound guidance.
Husna T. Ghani has an MSEd and an MBA. She has taught health and science for years. When she’s not working, she reads, writes, sketches, and tries to save the world (or something like that).