Food Security in the 21st Century: A Global View

by Stan Hirst

The Suzuki Elders’ Educational and Community Engagement Working Group have identified food security as one of several focuses for its ongoing educational programme.  Two salons on the subject have been held in recent months (summarized at this link and at this link). These meetings were structured as community events and so understandably had a major focus on food issues, concerns and policies in Canada and more specifically in Vancouver and the B.C. lower mainland.

We live in an increasingly connected world. Canada is far from immune to offshore trends, changes and impacts as recent religious conflicts, refugees, pandemics and economic shifts have made clear. It is therefore useful, possibly informative, to examine briefly the hugely important concern of food security from a more global perspective.

Most people in Canada seldom worry about where their next meal is coming from. The most recent statistics indicate that in 2011–2012 only about 5% of Canadian children and 8% of Canadian adults lived in food insecure households. This means that they did not have access to a sufficient variety or quantity of food due to lack of money. Nunavut currently has the highest rate of food insecurity (36.7%), over four times the Canadian average (8.3%).

In 1900 two in every five Canadian workers laboured on a farm; now the number is more like one in 100.  Statistics Canada data show that in 2015 we imported nearly $50 billion worth of food and agricultural products from a total of 175 countries, a figure strongly suggesting that Canada is a long way from food sufficiency (and/or that our appetites are considerably wider in scope than what is produced by our own farms).

Other parts of the globe are not as fortunate or as affluent. According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) some 2 billion of the world’s current 7.3 billion people do not have enough to eat. Some countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe, to name just a few, depend heavily on handouts of food from international donors such as the UN’s World Food Programme.

By 2050 the global population is projected to reach 10 billion. Add this to the rising demand in the Third World for meat, fish, milk and eggs which require extra fodder to produce, and the extra food needed by 2050 is estimated to be about 70% higher than was produced in 2009 (when the calculation was last made).

Where will all this extra food come from? Indications are that in developed countries the productivity of many staples such as rice and wheat has reached a plateau. Neither new strains nor expensive agrochemicals are raising yields significantly. Unfarmed land that is suitable for agricultural production is no longer available in economically viable amounts in most countries.  To make the situation worse, large agricultural areas in poor tropical regions are now becoming significantly less productive due to increased droughts and increased hail and flooding damage brought about by global climate change. Positive changes in the agricultural potential of northern areas wrought by the same climate changes are thus far too slow and globally insignificant to offset the losses.

What to do now?  Two avenues still remain open for positive change – the development, application and dissemination of new technologies, and the implementation of rational and appropriate government policies.

Agricultural technology is changing at an ever-increasing tempo, much of it driven by corporations and rich-world farmers in North America and parts of Australia and South America.  Crop breeding and cultivation techniques, especially genome-based breeding that can create crops with special properties almost to order, has been applied at increasing rates in the West for a quarter of a century.  They are now being adapted to make tropical crops such as cassava and some rice strains more productive and more nutritious. Such ‘smart’ crop breeding, in combination with genetic modification could conceivably break through the present yield plateaus. It could very well produce crops with properties such as drought- and heat-resistance that will mitigate the effects of global warming. Drought-resistant maize created in this way is already on the market.

Technology is of little use, however, if it is not adopted. In the developing world agricultural innovation applies to existing farming techniques as well as to the latest advances in genetic modification. So far yield plateaus have been a significant phenomenon only in the most intensively farmed parts of the world. Extending the best of today’s agricultural practices to the smallholders and subsistence farmers of Africa and Asia would get them quite a way down the road to a 70% increase in output, which is the figure cited to avoid future widespread famine. Improved infrastructure like better roads and markets would also encourage productivity and growth.

The FAO estimates that about a third of food is lost globally during or after harvest. In rich countries much of that is thrown away by consumers. In poor countries it never reaches consumers in the first place. Bad harvesting practices, poor storage and slow transportation mean that much food is damaged, spoiled or lost to pests. Overcoming such waste in Africa and Asia is largely a matter building things like secure, pest-proof grain storage silos.

The Suzuki Elders have thus far not addressed food security issues on scales larger than urban (Vancouver) or regional (British Columbia lower mainland).  The first step in widening the scope could well be a sensitisation of members and supporters to the magnitude and gravity of the situation.  Hopefully this post will contribute towards that.



  1. I don’t believe most of us realize how little we spend on the food we eat at home compared to other nations. On average, Canadians spend about 9% of their income on food, Western Europeans spend about 15%, Russians, Indians and Chinese about 25-35%, and some African countries as much as 50%. In the 1960’s, we spent twice as much on food as we do today, even though most of the food I remember eating back then was grown in Canada. The messages I take from this are that we are very lucky in North America, and when food costs double, we’ll manage but other nations will be in trouble.

  2. Increasing yields doesn’t go very far in addressing the real problem, which is distribution. If a third of food is “wasted,” that means we have plenty of food in terms of calories. But we have a lot of people who can’t afford food–or can’t afford to build rat proof silos, more efficient transportation systems, etc. We don’t have a food problem so much as an income distribution problem.

    Most of the world’s problems come down to income inequality.

  3. Increasing crop yields by the methods described will be futile in countries such as Somalia and Mozambique where the fertility rates are 5-6 children per adult female. Population control should be the priority, and that can only be successful if those countries have efficient stable governments. Don’t hold your breath.

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