The number is simple, though daunting. To feed the world’s population in 2050, when the human population is expected to have grown to more than 9 billion, we will need 60 percent more food globally — a formidable prospect given the scale of our current agricultural usage of energy, water and land.
My first message is that I’m optimistic that we can feed a growing world population and eliminate hunger well before 2050. This can be achieved with an integrated approach to food security, combining the increase in food production with reduction in food waste and measures to strengthen access to food, the main cause of hunger today.
The second message is that we can’t operate a business-as-usual approach. We need to harness wagonloads of innovation–and sometimes common sense–to achieve the goal.
My third message is that success depends on engaging young people. They are the future of food and nutrition security. Young people do not generally see a future for themselves in agriculture or rural areas: The average age of farmers in the USA is now 58 years, and even higher in Africa! This year’s Expo in Milan, with its theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” offers a unique opportunity to boost awareness of new food paradigms on a large public scale.
Sustainability needs youth, innovation and technology
Breaking down any barriers to youth engagement–especially the fully empowered engagement of young women–is critical. Agricultural growth in poorer countries has been shown to make an outsized contribution to food and nutrition security, the foundation on which to build sustainable development.
Youth are also touted as conduits of innovation, and this is where we need to catalyze their energy and ability to contribute to the challenge of feeding the world by 2050. We need to use the broadest toolkit possible, including well-tailored modern technologies and innovations that take into consideration local farming methods, allow the recovery of local food products, increase resilience of the most vulnerable communities and contribute to local development. We are already seeing examples of how this can work in Africa, Asia and other regions.
The increasingly global focus on sustainability can only benefit from the digital skills youth tend to possess. Information technology supports innovation across the spectrum, with opportunities ranging from the possible crowdsourcing of soil types to marketing initiatives for nutritional and so-called orphan crops. Savvy engineering and commercial skills can help make packaging and food-storage parts more sustainable, while the goal of reducing food loss and waste is a natural target for entrepreneurialism. All of the above can help generate employment and boost rural incomes, thereby helping break endemic poverty patterns, ease the strains of rapid and often involuntary urbanization, and provide alternatives to the often tragic attempts to illegally migrate to developed countries.
Success depends on a multiplicity of tasks carried out by a host of different actors, notably family farmers who must be harnessed both as agents of change and as keepers of ancient knowledge. FAO contributes to this in different ways, including through its “crop of the month” initiative, which aims at renewing interest in traditional crops such as quinoa, teff and amaranth. High-level and steady political commitment is certainly needed as well as research breakthroughs in areas such as soil science, and re-gearing supply chains to make food systems more sustainable.
Putting prestige back into farming
The attractions of farming, as well as fishing and herding, have lagged behind that of other sectors. Yet FAO and Slow Food believe there is no reason they shouldn’t have more prestige. Agriculture in the largest sense is not only done on rural farms. The sector is heavily impacted by developments in the insurance, retail and health sectors, to name just a few.
There are many green shoots, often linked to smartphones and other “cool” gadgets of modern life. These include online fora linked which grow into hubs where participants can organize collaborations such as regional seed-exchange fairs. There is ample scope for initiatives linked to the growing market for environmental services, which range from carbon storage to beekeeping. And human ingenuity will no doubt produce countless more such examples.
This year’s Expo 2015 in Milan is an ideal opportunity to amplify the call to action, especially as it is so squarely focused on sustainability – a concept for which youth is the natural constituency.
José Graziano da Silva is Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organization.
This article has been published as a preview of from the Slow Food Almanac 2015, soon to be released.