The global agrifood system is wasteful and damaging but there are steps we can take to tackle it
Supply chain disruptions, a pandemic, extreme weather and now a war in Ukraine have exposed faultlines in the global food system that we ignore at our peril. The crisis demands nothing less than a complete transformation of agrifood — one that involves diversifying the crops we grow, the way we grow them and how we transport them.
Climate change threatens almost everything when it comes to our food. More than 40 per cent of wheat on America’s great plains is suffering from drought. In China, floods mean wheat yields this year will be among the poorest ever. In May, India registered record temperatures of 49C. Much of Europe has been in the grip of a deadly heatwave.
The war in Ukraine is yet another disruption to a vulnerable system. Together, Russia and Ukraine supply 28 per cent of globally traded wheat, 29 per cent of barley, 15 per cent of maize and 75 per cent of the sunflower seeds that account for 11.5 per cent of the vegetable oil market. Russia is also the world’s biggest exporter of nitrogen fertiliser, the second of potash and third of phosphorous and a major source of the energy that fuels global agriculture.
Essentially, we now have a “fossil food” system in which a few staple crops grown in a few exporting countries are transported to distant consumers around the world using fossil fuels at each stage from plough to plate.
So, what should we do? To date, our response has been “business-as-usual” as importing countries scramble to find alternative sources of staple crops such as wheat from Ukraine and Russia. However, to protect their food security, 23 countries, including India, have imposed restrictions on wheat exports and other foodstuffs. More will follow. Doubling down on mainstream staples will become an increasingly bad investment — if we are struggling to feed a global population of 7.8bn people, how can we nourish a predicted 10bn by 2050 on a hotter planet?
In short, we must change from a fossil food system into a future foods one. This must include climate-resilient and nutritious “forgotten” crops, as well as diverse farming systems that have been displaced by industrial monocultures of energy- and fertiliser-hungry staples.
This article was written by Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali, CEO Crops for the Future. It was originally published in the Financial Times and can be found here.
A previous blog ‘ Forgotten Crops: The Key to Good Nutrition and Food Security’ can be found here.