Australian Academic Tips On Food Security

Ever since British cleric and political economist Thomas Malthus predicted in the 18th century about the inherent danger of population explosion that he warned would outstrip the globe’s ability to feed itself, governments and scholars have continued to grapple with the twin problems without much success. Malthus’ argument then was based on his findings that led him to conclude that population growth followed an exponential path while food production increased arithmetically, an outcome that led Malthus to conclude, that a time would come when humans would have no resources to survive on.

Kenya for example with its current population of 44 million people has over 10 million people who rely on food relief and therefore threatened with starvation. With the population growth rate of one million people annually and its dependency on imports of its major staples, Kenya’s food security situation is likely to worsen unless something happens to increase food production. The situation is no different in majority of developing countries.

To address the unrelenting food security crisis in the world, there is growing optimism among scholars that the solution lies in a new approach to agriculture; that would transform and shift agriculture to enable populations to embrace eco-agriculture. Eco-agriculture it is believed would strike the much missing balance in agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. The key plank of eco-agriculture stems from reliable scientific evidence suggesting that compatible and prudent biodiversity conservation remain indispensable to sustainable food production.

One of the leading proponents of eco-agriculture is Prof. Shashi Sharma, an Australian academic who traces the history of agriculture, as managed food production system to 8000 BC, when the world population stood at five million people. By the end of 2011, says Prof. Sharma, the world was inhabited by seven billion people and is expected to surpass the nine billion mark by 2050.

Prof. Imbuga (left) with Prof. Sharma (right) shortly before the latter addressed dons and students at JKUAT

Prof. Sharma who is based at Murdoch University , Australia where he is Chair, Centre for Biosecurity and Food Security, laments that while the current global food production appeared to be adequate to feed seven billion people, he blamed the apparent food scarcity to inefficiencies in the food value chain that he said was responsible for massive food loss and waste that ‘equates to food for over two billion people’.

Prof. Sharma who was at JKUAT, Wednesday June 26, 2013, spoke on the topic ‘biosecurity and food security’ to an audience of dons and students led by Prof. Mabel Imbuga, the vice chancellor, lamented that despite the world’s long experience of 10,000 years practice in agriculture, current agricultural practices and technologies were still inefficient. The same technologies he argued had as well over the years exacerbated the adverse impact of agriculture on the environment.

“Over two million metric tons of pesticides are applied each year in the world and pests continue to cause losses of over US$1.4 trillion annually. Insect pests alone destroy food that can feed about one billion people. Nearly half of the amount of fertilizer applied to fields often does not reach the plants and instead find its way into soil or waterways”

According to the scholar, agriculture currently utilized around 70 per cent of available water in the world and noted that despite the huge amounts of water channeled to agriculture, irrigation technologies were often inefficient and resulted in water wastage. “Poorly designed and implemented irrigation schemes have caused water logging, salinisation and alkalisation of soils. About 23 per cent of all usable land has been affected by degradation to a degree that reduces its productivity. Globally over one billion hectares of land are already salinised”.

The don who also used the opportunity to meet JKUAT faculty that would lead to a possible collaboration between the two universities warned that if the said agricultural practices continued to degrade the land and render it unfit for future use then agriculture would not be much different from mining in terms of resources exhaustion.

To address the global food security challenge which is to feed the world in the face of population growth, measures he advised had to be put in place to reverse uneven food access, increase water shortage and suitable soils. Other pitfalls the don declared such as climate change, volatile markets, degraded ecosystems and the preservation of natural ecosystems had to be overcome to enhance food security. Prof Sharma advocates for the application of 3P’s of ‘producing, protecting and providing’ that he said would lead to sustainable food production in the world.

Food production he said must not compromise the long term productive capacity of water and land based ecosystems. Further, there is need he added for people to diversify the portfolio of food sources citing abundant availability of potentially promising yet under-utilised land based plant and animal species and species in the ocean. Global food security he says had become increasingly dependent on a handful of crops such as rice, wheat, maize, soybean and potato. ‘There is urgent need to look for ‘future foods’ and new protein sources that have lighter environmental foot print’. He called on researchers to thoroughly screen and identify potential microbes that could be used ‘ as game changers’ to drive growth and progress in food production.

According to Prof. Sharma, measures should be put in place to protect rampant food losses in the value chain through the development of efficient supply chain infrastructure and post harvest treatment storage life of food, maintain food quality and prevent pest infestations. Food waste he said is a misnomer that should be understood as unused and developed as food energy for better use; such as; animal feed and bio-fertilizer instead of allowing the product to pollute the environment.

The don underlined the importance of integrity to ensure safety in food distribution. Food trade and distribution must not expose the recipient regions and communities to bio-security risks.

Prof. Sharma reminded fellow researchers planet earth which was about 4.5 billion years old was estimated to last for another two billion years and ‘unless we do something very drastic and make ourselves extinct, humans could continue to live as long as there is life on this planet’, a fact that required concerted scientific investment that could lead to sustainable food production to feed global population without compromising the health of the environment and the primary source of food production.

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