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A hungry world

Opinion

March 30, 2019

The FAO warns in its new report, ‘The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges’, that unless the world undertakes ‘major transformations’ to address world hunger, the ability of the world to feed itself is in serious jeopardy.

The world will have trouble feeding itself in decades to come unless countries transform the way they grow and distribute food. The report paints a hungry and bleak future.

Experts estimate that because of a constantly growing population, the world will have 10 billion people to feed in 2050 compared to 7.3 billion today and as a consequence agricultural output will need to increase by 50 percent.

There are also a number of closely related challenges beyond just a growing population. Eating habits and diets are changing from heavy on cereals to more consumption of meat, which requires more grains and water. For eg, an average Chinese who used to consume 28.6 lbs of meat per year in 1982 has gone on to 138.9 lbs of meat in 2016.

Groundwater sources are also depleting fast. From the Central Valley of California to northern China, water reserves in 21 of 37 of the world’s largest aquifers are on the decline; two billion people around the world depend on aquifers for their water supply.

Another major factor is climate change, which is altering weather patterns and is expected to lead to shrinking agricultural yields, especially in already vulnerable regions.

This dire situation is creating a ticking bomb down the road. According to UN estimates, 600 million people will be undernourished in 2030 and overall food security at the global level will be “in jeopardy” unless there is a concerted effort to change eating habits and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

According to the FAO, the dire consequences of the report are possible to avoid by investing $256 billion through 2030 to keep the hungry fed. That could include investments in new agricultural technology to improve crop yields, researching genetically modified organisms, new distribution methods and more investments in humanitarian aid and development. It would also require shaking unsustainable practices such as intensive agriculture, overconsumption of meats and little practical action to tackle the causes of climate change. The UN warns that business as usual is not an option.

The challenges identified by the FAO also go beyond the capacities of any single country. In many cases, hunger is due to lack of access or purchasing power, not a dearth of food. Countries wrecked by conflict are especially prone to disruption of agricultural activities and food distribution. Currently South Sudan and Yemen are already in famine and Nigeria and Somalia are on the brink. These countries are embroiled in armed conflict; there is a strong nexus between hunger and war.

Pakistan’s biggest challenges include a burgeoning population growth, water scarcity and climate change. In 1947, Pakistan had 47 million people and now it is over 200 million, making it the sixth most populous country in the world.

Pakistan is also one of the top ten most water-stressed countries in the world. Failure to invest in building water reservoirs for decades has subjected the country to recurrent floods. The floods of 2010, acknowledged to be of biblical proportions, affected 20 million people, with one-fifth of the country under water, killed over 2000 people, damaged two million homes, one million livestock perished, destroyed six million acres of crops and washed away a vast network of roads and bridges.

There is a strong connection between population, water and climate change. If Pakistan fails to address these daunting challenges on a war footing, the country will continue to be mired in rampant poverty, hunger and deprivation.

The writer is formerrepresentative of the FAO to China, DPRK, Mongolia and Uganda, and currentlya senior associate at theHarvard UniversityAsia Center.

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