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Food Security: Our Problem, Not Their Problem

lawrence, gary, aecomWhether we drive a BMW or a rickshaw, there are issues that none of us can afford to ignore. That is why I’m optimistic about the forthcoming United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will be adopted this month in New York. The 17 SDGs replace the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000. Why the change?

While the MDGs highlighted the critical need to eradicate poverty and hunger, improve health and expand education for vulnerable populations around the world, they were largely perceived as developing nation problems. As the MDG deadline approaches, there are still over one billion people living in extreme poverty, more than 800 million hungry and malnourished and women around the world are still battling inequality on all fronts. The MDG goals, while aspirational and unquestionably important, failed to translate into meaningful action at the necessary scales.

The SDGs adopt a more globally cooperative view. Take for example the second SDG: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” This is a truly global issue. The United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization reports that global food production must increase by 60 percent by 2050 to meet the demands of the growing world population. Conversely, over 33 percent of the food we produce today is lost or wasted. Interestingly, this waste is almost equally split between industrialized and developing nations although the root causes are different.

Of the estimated 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually, 52 percent is wasted in industrialized countries largely by consumers throwing away perfectly edible food. The other 49 percent is lost in developing countries at the early stages of the food supply chain due to poor infrastructure, lack of refrigeration and inefficient food production systems.

Not just food is wasted. Producing all this wasted food consumes 28 percent of the world’s total agricultural land (an area the size of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan combined), 250 km3 of water (the annual flow rate of the Zambezi River and enough to satisfy all the world’s household water needs), and emits 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gases (if food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitter on the planet). In cold hard cash, food waste costs the global economy approximately US$2.6 trillion a year.

These are not technological problems; they are economic and political. But when we look at the cost of these problems — malnutrition, poor health and chronic disease, whether diabetes or rickets, and the toll on finite natural resources — the burden is born by industrialized and developing nations alike. How can we fail to recognize that there are certain problems we cannot afford to avoid?

I believe that the new SDGs — while ambitious — provide a clearer road map to change by understanding the root causes and the interconnected nature of today’s most complex challenges. They emphasize that whatever country we live in, these issues are our problems, not their problems. Multi-national and public-private collaboration is therefore the key to addressing these problems. Two recent and promising examples of this kind of cooperation come to mind.

The Innovation Center for US Dairy is a forum for the whole dairy industry — from producers, through the supply chain, to the consumer — to encourage pre-competitive collaboration in the interest of improving outcomes for everyone involved. Collaboration between farmers, purchasers, distributors, retailers and consumers has led to many improvements across the board that have reduced environmental impact, improved health outcomes, improved efficiency, reduced resource consumption and positively impacted the bottom line for all.

The Innovation Center has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to develop smart farming practices that sustainably and responsibly intensify agricultural production to feed a growing population, and to identify new uses for previously wasted products, such as animal feedstock, renewable energy sources and even human nutrition (such as whey protein). There are many initiatives under the Innovation Center umbrella, but all are driven by the mission to produce high-quality nutrition, preserve the resources essential to dairy farming and ensure a sustainable revenue stream for everyone engaged in the industry.

Another case of important collaboration is the significant investment in African agriculture by China. There is the inevitable speculation, skepticism and concern about the true motivation and the ultimate impact behind the investment, but the idea has much merit. Rather than supplying Africa with aid packages that could all too probably end up in the coffers of a corrupt few, China is investing in research and trade agreements, infrastructure and technology transfer that could very well solve not just China’s food deficit but, over time, boost Africa’s capability to produce an agricultural surplus. Such a strategy has the potential to create jobs, wealth, stability and food security on a continent in dire need of all those things while securing a steady food supply to China at an affordable price.

I hope that the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals will stimulate a new level of collaboration between governments, citizens and the private sector. We all have a great deal to gain by acting differently.

Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.

Gary Lawrence
Chief Sustainability Officer and Vice President, AECOM Technology Corp.
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