Europe and global food security [Archived]


As the world’s population approaches ten billion, issues like climate change, growing scarcity of oil and availability of quality land and water are challenging the planet’s capacity to produce enough food for everyone – a paradigm shift that could potentially pave the way for a new global ‘food crunch’.

What is food security?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), "food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life". This, it adds, involves the following conditions: 

  • Adequacy of food supply and availability;
  • stability of supply, without fluctuations or shortages from season to season or from year to year;
  • accessibility to food or affordability, and;  
  • quality and safety of food. 

According to the FAO, around 923 million people worldwide were chronically hungry due to extreme poverty in 2007, while some two billion more intermittently lack food security as a result of varying degrees of poverty.

Towards food cartels? 

Recent food price increases have lead to violent protests in Latin America, Africa and Asia, demonstrating the immediate impact the rise in basic commodity prices has had on the world's poorest populations. In spring 2008, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia agreed in principle to form a rice price-fixing body, the Organisation of Rice Exporting Countries (OREC), amid soaring costs of basic grain. Such a food cartel, to be set up by 2012, would be similar to the oil cartel OPEC.

Developing countries which are net importers of food have been hit hardest by the hike in food prices, while net food exporting countries are making large profits. However, in the long term, rising food prices could help rural communities in some developing countries to escape poverty, increasing farmers' income. 

Higher agricultural prices could increase public and private investments to programmes that improve productivity and infrastructure and spread production to marginal land. This in turn might stop increasing urbanisation, as higher wages and increased labour demand would incite people to stay in rural areas. 

Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was initially created to support production and overcome food shortages induced by the Second World War. But it lead to overproduction and exported food surpluses to world markets, which in turn meant that developing countries faced unfair competition. 

Nowadays, while the EU has opted to reduce its direct subsidisation of production in favour of redirecting money towards rural development, recent hikes in food prices have prompted renewed debate on the way forward. 

Debate on the CAP's future is just beginning, with major changes to EU agricultural policy expected to be introduced from 2013. 

Current threats to global food security

Increased demand for food

Increased demand for food stems from global population growth. The world's population currently stands at six billion, but is expected to rise to about nine billion by 2020 before stabilising at ten billion around 2050.

Current threats to global food security

Increased demand for food

Increased demand for food stems from global population growth. The world's population currently stands at six billion, but is expected to rise to about nine billion by 2020 before stabilising at ten billion around 2050.

In addition to population growth and increased demand for basic foods like wheat, demand for meat and dairy products is steadily growing, as emerging economies like China and India become richer and their populations adopt Western-style, resource-intensive eating habits. According to the World Bank, demand for food in general is expected to increase by 50% by 2050, and demand for meat by 85%.

Competition for land

Potential yield increases might not be enough to feed the world. It is expected that more acreage will be required if agriculture is to meet the population challenge. But agriculture must compete for land as urbanisation increases throughout the world - cities tend to expand to the most productive land - and more land is used for farming biofuels and timber. Climate change also poses a threat to increasing acreage for agriculture, creating the need to preserve forests to absorb greenhouse gases. 

Soil quality

Since the green revolution in the early 1950s, intensive farming around the world has led to serious degradation of agricultural soil. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, up to 40% of agricultural land around the globe is seriously affected by soil degradation. This is caused by farming only one type of crop on certain land, which over a number of years exhausts all the required nutrients from the soil and reduces yields. 

'Genetic erosion' in agricultural biodiversity

In some cases, replacing local varieties of domestic plants with high-yield or exotic varieties has, according to scientists, led to the collapse of important gene pools, like wild and indigenous varieties. Some researchers also believe that the general tendency towards genetic and ecological uniformity imposed by the development of modern agriculture, such GMOs, represents a challenge to the genetic diversity of agro-ecosystems, and lowers agriculture's capacity to adapt to changing climatic conditions and new varieties of pest.  

Water scarcity

While agriculture accounts for some 70% of global freshwater use, unsustainable extraction from lakes, rivers and groundwater is increasingly threatening the long-term sustainability of global food production. The annual Davos meeting in 2009 warned that the world is on the verge of water bankruptcy in many places. A UN-sponsored 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment further notes that 70 of the world's major rivers, including the Colorado, Ganges, Jordan, Nile and Tigris-Euphrates, are close to their maximum extraction levels for supplying irrigation systems and reservoirs with water. 

Climate change

Climate change directly affects food production by changing agro-ecological conditions. Increased seasonal variations in rainfall are expected to further affect water availability, making yield prediction more difficult. Changing weather conditions are also expected to bring new crop diseases and pests. 

Furthermore, climate change is expected to introduce pronounced regional shifts in agricultural production. As sea levels are expected to rise, a considerable increase in suitable cropland at higher latitudes in most developed countries is expected - matched with a corresponding decline of potential cropland at lower latitudes, where most developing countries are located. Meanwhile, melting glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet are expected to cause serious water supply problems in Asian countries, including China.  

Peak oil

Modern food production has been highly dependent on fossil fuels since the so-called 'Green Revolution' in the 1940s, when pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides derived from petrochemicals began to be used and mechanisation began to increase. While the Green Revolution increased global grain production by 250% between 1950 and 1984, the ever-decreasing supply of fossil fuels is expected to have a major effect on the modern industrial agricultural system: all the more so given that energy input into the agricultural process has also greatly increased over time. 

In addition, food security can be hampered by socio-political factors, in developing countries in particular. Government intervention may reduce the incentive for producers to invest in and increase their production, and small rural farmers have difficulty accessing seed, fertiliser, machinery, credit and markets. The power of intermediaries in the agrifood chain can also hamper rural farmers' chances of receiving fair compensation for their work, while wars and ethnic unrest hamper the sustainability of overall food production.

Global food security: possible solutions

Increasing agricultural productivity

As food demand grows and increasing competition for land restricts opportunities to expand farming land, increasing yields from existing land becomes crucial. One of the main debates in this regard centres on genetically-modified (GM) crops

As GM crops are more resistant to pests, weeds, insects and parasites, they allow for better harvests and reduce the need for pesticides. Second-generation GM technologies, which are currently under development, are about making crops more resistant to water shortages, extreme temperatures, and salinised or acidic soils. Drought and salt-tolerant crops could be of particular interest in the context of fighting climate change, water shortages and soil degradation. 

Yields could also be increased, in particular in developing countries, by ensuring that farmers have access to seeds, fertilisers, machinery, technology, credit and markets. This could be done by means of greater public sector investment in agriculture and overall infrastructure, and by developed countries increasing their development assistance to developing countries.  

Boosting agricultural research and development

While the world is currently fed by a small number of crops, namely rice, maize and wheat, agricultural researchers argue that it is necessary to diversify the crops cultivated, as well as to explore new varieties and then diversify the genetic resources of the new crops. More genetic variety within a species, it is argued, would allow it to adapt more easily to changing climatic conditions. 

Researchers also highlight the need for more cross-sectoral research combining, for example, agronomy, urbanisation, energy supply, genetics, pathology and economics, to respond to agricultural challenges. 

Opting for more 'greener' agricultural practices

Use of water in agriculture can reportedly be reduced by 50% and 30% by opting for less water, using drip  or sprinkler irrigation methods instead of flood irrigation.

Other possible solutions include integrated pest managementintegrated soil fertility management and minimum tillage.

The first of the latter options involves using natural predators and parasites to destroy pests, thus reducing the need for pesticides. The second requires combined use of organic and inorganic fertilisers to increase yields, while at the same time improving the quality of depleated soils. 

Tillage - ploughing and turning the soil over before sowing seed - leads to the formation of a hard layer of soil in the long term, which stops plant roots and water from penetrating deep into the soil. Minimum tillage is a conservation tillage method that does not turn over the soil. Plant residues are left on the ground, and seeds are sown through this layer into undisturbed soil. While this means that herbicides need to be used to control the weeds, the method is thought to prevent erosion and help keep soils moist. 

International cooperation

Other proposals include agricultural trade liberalisation, particularly because EU and US farm subsidy schemes for food production and exports restrict competition from developing countries and erode their agricultural sectors. 

The creation of an emergency response system and an international agency ('International Food Agency'), overseen by a disinterested party like the World Food programme, has also been suggested as a means of coordinating collective action in future food crises.

Supporting small-scale farming, in particular in developing countries, and helping them increase agricultural productivity, is also seen as a way of not only enhancing food security, but also helping small farmers out of poverty, as they could sell over-production and reinvest gains in diversifying their production. 

EU response

The Commission recognises that rises in food and commodity prices, if sustained over time, could have implications for both global and EU security, including a threat of conflict over scarce resources and increased movement of people. It is even proposing that the issue be included in an ongoing re-examination of the 2003 European Security Strategy. 

The EU executive has proposed a number of EU initiatives to address rising global food prices. These include promoting an open trade policy and concluding the WTO Doha Round, which the Commission believes should lead to "significant potential gains for developing countries" in terms of new market opportunities. Progress on Doha would help generate additional export income, stimulate agricultural production and facilitate access to foodstuffs. 

Until 2007, African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries enjoyed preferential access to EU markets. They could apply barriers on imports from the EU, but enjoyed almost duty- and quota-free access to the Community market. However, such practices were considered violations of WTO requirements regarding non-discimination of WTO members. 

Bilateral Economic Trade Agreements (EPAs) between the EU and the ACP countries had to be concluded by the end of 2007, when WTO waivers for ACP countries' temporary preferential access to EU markets expired and trade reciprocity had to be implemented. 

But by the end of 2007, just one full regional EPA had been agreed upon, whereas in other five negotiating regions, only interim agreements - mainly covering trade in goods - were signed, with a view of continuing negotiations towards full regional EPAs. 

The EU executive also believes that its development cooperation programmes can help structural, long-term change in developing countries by supporting the creation of an "enabling environment for the sector". This, it argues, stands for reformed agricultural policies, institutions and land management regimes, and investment in rural development, notably in rural infrastructure and agricultural research programmes.

The Commission is also committed to its current humanitarian engagements and hopes to help increase access to food for the world's poorest people, by supporting international schemes such as the World Food Programme. 

The UN Millennium Development Goals aim to achieve global food security. In its list of objectives, the first Millennium Development Goal states that the UN "is to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty" and "agricultural productivity is likely to play a key role in this if it is to be reached on time". 

However, the UN has warned that the global economic crisis further "complicates and exacerbates the situation". David Nabarro, coordinator of the UN secretary-general's task force on the global food security crisis, said "price volatility and a global credit crunch are discouraging new planting and new investment, while food prices in many poor countries remain at historically high levels". 

"We must learn the lessons of the financial crisis and act together with the rest of the world to meet the food challenge", said French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier, calling for a worldwide partnership on food and agriculture. This would include officials from the FAO, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, involve the establishment of a technical group like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and require "international financial mobilisation, in keeping with what is at stake to expand agriculture in developing countries". 

Czech First Deputy Minister of Agriculture Ivo Hlavá?, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, argues that the development dimension must become an integral part of the common trade and agricultural policies of the EU. More emphasis on land cultivation and educating the workforces that cultivate crops is essential, according to Hlavá?.

Non-market investments and development cooperation will not have the desired effect from a long-term perspective unless education and infrastructure is developed, market barriers are removed and local markets are allowed function properly, the minister believes.

The European Parliament is calling for more European intiatives to ensure global food security. The House believes that €1 billion in EU aid earmarked for developing countries should be accompanied by fresh investment in agriculture. MEPs also want EU development aid in general to be redirected towards agriculture. 

The EU assembly also argues that the EU should propose the creation of mechanisms to ensure that sufficient global food stocks are available. This could, the House argues, be done through the creation of a "worldwide stockholding obligation programme" to ensure the availability of food and provide a better basic storage system for key production inputs - such as protein, fertilisers, seeds and pesticides - in developing countries.

Several MEPs have noted that development aid should be refocused on agriculture, that farmers worldwide need decent incomes to enable them to continue producing enough, and that international trade negotiations need to produce a more balanced agreement for developing countries. 

The European Landowners' Organisation (ELO) underlines that the "quality of the environment is closely related to the state of our farm land and forests". It notes that while "first-generation or pre-industrial agriculture" did not intrude on nature, the current "second-generation agriculture," involving science and technology, has increased productivity and output "at significant environmental cost". 

ELO thus identifies moving to "third-generation agriculture, [...] maintaining and increasing productivity in a dramatically less environmentally intrusive way," as the main challenge in addressing the global food security challenge. 

While ELO welcomes the global and EU focus on liberalising agricultural trade and ending protectionist policies in the developed world, it underlines that markets alone simply cannot deal with the pervasive environmental market failures surrounding food production. Cooperation with other stakeholders, such as NGOs, is needed, the organisation argues.

ELO laments that the farming sector is "in a situation of extreme imbalance in market power, squeezed as it is between powerful upstream input supply industries and the even more powerful downstream food processing and retailing sectors".

In order to trigger wider discussion of the food security challenge, ELO and Syngenta, a Swiss biotech company, established a new Forum for the Future of Agriculture in 2008, calling for a re-evaluation of European agricultural policy to address the double challenge of food and environmental security. 

"We need a policy change. We cannot tackle tomorrow's challenges with yesterday's policy toolkit", according to Franz Fischler, chairman of both the Forum for the Future of Agriculture  and the RISE Foundation, and a former EU agriculture commissioner. "We need a modern policy framework which enables our farmers to meet world food demand in an environmentally sustainable way. We must first identify the most important tools to meet these challenges, and then reassess the budgetary means required," Fischler argues 

"Modern technology is essential to equip farmers to meet the challenge of growing more food on limited land in a sustainable way," said John Atkin, Syngenta's chief operating officer for crop protection products. "But some proposed regulations risk limiting the technological tools available to farmers, which could reduce their productivity. Lower productivity means more land under production, threatening forests and other natural habitats." 

Syngenta CEO Mike Mack highlights the importance of science and research in finding alternative sources of energy, combating water scarcity and protecting biodiversity to ensure food security and environmental safety. "A full modern toolbox including biotechnology, crop protection and seed care is vital to provide solutions," Mack said. 

"Our innovative products allow us to unlock the potential of plants, enabling us to do more with less – feed more people and produce more fuel and fibre, while using less water and decreasing the carbon footprint of agriculture," he continued. 

Meanwhile green NGOs argue that GM crops do not increase yields, as "increased yield" is rather a result of reduced loss of yields. Friends of the Earth further argues that GM crops actually increase pesticide use, in particular that of herbicides. In the long term, it argues, weeds become resistant to the chemicals engineered by the crops that are designed to kill them. 

Greenpeace  argues that GMOs should not be released into the environment "as there is not adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health". The NGO is worried that GMOs spread throughout nature and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating non-genetically engineered environments and future generations in an "uncontrollable way". GMOs cannot be recalled once released into the environment.

The NGO also opposes all patents on plants and patents on their genes, because "life is not an industrial commodity" and the biodiversity and environmental integrity of the world's food supply is "too important to our survival".

Farmers  and agri-cooperatives  across Europe, represented by Copa-Cogeca, are increasingly concerned by the current crisis in agricultural markets. "Producer prices for many agricultural products have fallen substantially over recent months, while the cost of production has risen sharply," they deplore. 

As global food markets have become volatile, Copa-Cogeca is calling on policymakers to urgently introduce measures to "help prevent the most extreme market fluctuations and make sure that the remaining market managing tools are used," in order to maintain sustainably-produced, high-quality food security in Europe.

Gert van Dijk, president of Cogeca, is also calling for more transparency in the food chain, and is urging the European Commission to "urgently step up its efforts and take action against the imbalances of power in the food chain". 

"How can consumers be expected to pay the same amount for their food in supermarkets, while farmers are being paid less?," van Dijk asked, calling on the Commission to investigate price transmission mechanisms. He also argued that more support for cooperatives would lead to smoother running of the food chain and fairer competition, enabling farmers to obtain a larger proportion of the added value. "Whilst we do need to cooperate with other stakeholders in the food chain, no unfair commercial practices should be allowed," he summarised. 

African farmers  and parliamentarians, who recently toured European capitals to raise awareness of the disastrous effects of the current EU-ACP Economic Trade Agreements (EPAs) on food security in Africa, argued that if these agreements are not revisited, they will lead to the destruction of African small farmers' livelihoods, destroy the continent's fragile agro-industry and lead to increased food insecurity in African countries. 

While the EPAs aim to open ACP and particularly African markets to Europe, via the principle of reciprocity, the different levels of development and competitiveness between European and African countries makes trading on an equal basis impossible, they argued. In addition, the EU's hesitation to eliminate export support to its farmers and to reduce its current level of agricultural subsidies means EPAs are still a long way away from being fair trade. 

African farmers and their representatives are therefore urging the EU to respect principles of fair trade and stop dumping surplus agricultural products on Africa's smallholder farmers and producers. They are also stressing the need to address and discuss CAP-related issues (including agricultural subsidies and dumping) in the context of the EPA negotiations. 

"The conditions imposed on us by EPAs are so harsh that Africa cannot export," deplored Pauline Ndoumou, a member of the National Assembly of Cameroon. "In the end, EPAs will kill Africa's agricultural production," Ndoumou added. "We need to protect African agriculture while it develops," she said. 

Other African representatives agreed that African agriculture must go through a development phase before any trade liberalisation can take place, to allow the continent to compete fairly. "The current level of African trade does not allow reciprocity," they underlined. In addition, they complained that the EU ties allocation of its European Development Fund (EDF) aid to the signing of EPAs.   

Via Campesina, the international peasants' movement, calls for the reorientation of agricultural policies towards small-scale production based on sustainable rural communities and local consumption models, which bring food sovereignty. This "genuine agrarian reform", it argues, uses a minimal amount of energy, creates jobs, respects cultural and biological diversity and helps fight global warming, as fertile soils capture the most CO2. 

Via Campesina rejects "corporate-driven, monoculture-based production of agrofuels" and calls for an international moratorium on the production, trade and consumption of industrial agrofuels, until an "in-depth evaluation of the social and environment costs of the agrofuel boom, and of profits made by transnational companies in the processing and trade of raw materials". 

The Fair Trade Movement underlines that small farmers are key to feeding the world. It argues that big global agribusiness, which drives small farmers off their land in poor countries, was instrumental in causing the current global food crisis. 

The movement further argues that small farms are productive, environmentally-friendly and create jobs, unlike agribusiness, which "favours profit over sustainability and human rights".

Stephen Devereux, a research fellow at the UK Institute of Development Studies looks beyond technical factors tow political explanations to find answers to current food shortages and famines in a book entitled 'The New Famines - Why Famines Persist in an Era of Globalisation'.

If in the past, attempts to understand famines focused on the causes and consequences of food production decline, "contemporary famines are either caused deliberately or they are not prevented when they could and should have been. Many recent famines are associated with catastrophic governance failures or collapses of the social order," Devereux writes.

Even when a livelihood shock, such as drought, triggers a food shortage, it is the failure of local, national and international responses that allows subsequent food shortages to evolve into a famine, Devereux writes. "The distribution of food within a country is a political issue" and government action or inaction determine the severity of famine conditions. Priority in food security is often given to urban areas, which hosts the "most important electorate". 

He also notes that many agrarian policies, especially in pricing agricultural commodities, discriminate against rural areas. "Governments often keep prices of basic grain at such artificially low levels that subsistence producers cannot accumulate enough capital to make investments to improve their production," and are effectively prevented from getting out of their precarious situation. 

When a government monopolises trade, Devereux explains how farmers may find that they are free to grow cash crops for export, but under penalty of law, are only able to sell their crops to government buyers at prices far below the world market price. The government then is free to sell the crop on the world market at full price, pocketing the difference. 

This creates an artificial "poverty trap", from which even the most hard-working and motivated farmers may not escape, he laments. 

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a World Bank initiative, notes that policy options for addressing food security include developing high-value and under-utilised crops in rain-fed areas; increasing the full range of agricultural exports and imports, including organic and fair trade products; reducing transaction costs for small-scale producers; strengthening local markets; food safety nets; promoting agro-insurance; and improving food safety and quality. 

Price shocks and extreme weather events call for a global system of monitoring and intervention for the timely prediction of major food shortages and price-induced hunger, IAASTD argues. 

Guy Riba, deputy director of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), underlines that challenges related to sustainable food production cannot be solved by technological research alone, with an integrated approach key to addressing them. 

According to Riba, this means integrating into a single system advances made in genetics, agronomy, pathology, technology, economy and sociology, for example. "We are losing a lot of time, because some very interesting innovations are not being integrated. For example, what is the point in increasing the yield of some crops in one region if neither the farmer organisation nor the infrastructure to get the crops to market is improved?," he noted (see EURACTIV interview).

Another research challenge is to improve diagnosis of diseases and pests, as well as of water, soil and air quality, because "we are currently losing a lot of time and money on identifying the problems" once, for example, a new plant disease occurs, Riba explained. 

The United States' development aid agency, USAID, proposes the following to increase agricultural productivity to boost rural income and food security: increasing agricultural science and technology; securing property rights and access to finance; enhancing human capital through education and improved health, conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms; promoting governance based on democracy; and promoting principles of accountability and transparency in public institutions to protect vulnerable members of society. 

International agency Oxfam highlights that "decades of underinvestment in agriculture, coupled with the increasing threat of climate change, mean that despite recent price falls, future food security is by no means guaranteed, and in fact the situation could get worse". 

The agency argues that lasting solutions to the global food crisis include "adequate investment in agriculture, fairer trade, the redistribution of resources, and action on climate change". 

  • 1962: The EU Common Agricultural Policy launched.
  • June 2008Global Food Summit in Rome adopted declaration calling on the international community to increase assistance for developing countries, in particular the least-developed countries and those that are most negatively affected by high food prices.
  • Jan. 2009: European Parliament adopted an own-initiative report calling for more European initiatives to ensure global food security.    
  • 26-27 Jan. 2009: UN Food Security for All meeting in Madrid. 
  • 4 March 2009: Global food security conference in Prague.
  • 17-18 March 20092nd Forum for the Future of Agriculture: "The Global Financial and Economic Crisis: The challenge of financing food and environmental security," featuring a speech by 2008 Economic Nobel Prize Winner Paul Krugman on food security (see blog on the issue).
  • 16-22 March 2009Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul.
  • March 2009: Commission to publish a White Paper on adaptation to climate change.
  • 2009: Discussions on the EU's future long-term budget after 2013 to start, giving indications as to the scope of the future CAP.
  • 12-13 Oct. 2009How to Feed the World in 2050: High-level expert forum in Rome.
  • 13 Oct. 2009: Fondation EURACTIV debate entitled 'World food security: What role for Europe?'
  • 16-18 Nov. 2009World Summit on Food Security in Rome.   
  • 15 March 2011: 4th Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Brussels.
  • By 2015: Target date for achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, including that of eradicating extreme hunger and poverty.

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