LONDON, May 2 (AlertNet) - In flood-hit fields in the
Philippines, farmers are testing a hardy new variety of rice
that can survive completely submerged for more than two weeks.
In Kenya's Kibera slum, poor urban families are turning
around their diets and incomes just by learning to grow
vegetables in sack gardens outside their doors.
And in India, a push to help marginalised rural communities
gain title to their land is leading to a significant drop in
These are just a few of the kinds of innovations and
intitiatives that experts say will be critical if the world is
to feed itself over coming decades as the population soars,
cities sprawl and climate change takes its toll.
By 2050, the planet will need at least 70 percent more food
than it does today to meet both an expected rise in population
to 9 billion from 7 billion and changing appetites as many poor
people grow richer, experts say.
"Can we feed a world of 9 billion? I would say the answer is
yes," said Robert Watson, chief scientific adviser to Britain's
Department of Environment and Rural Affairs and a former chair
of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But doing so will require fundamental changes to
unsustainable but well-entrenched policies and practices, from
eating so much meat to spending trillions on agriculture and
fuel subsidies, he said.
In the meantime, many hunger fighters say the answer lies in
clever alterations to the way food is planted, watered,
harvested, stored, transported, sold, owned and shared.
Many of those changes are already being tested in the
world's farms and fields, in laboratories and government
offices, in factories and markets. Some are even speaking of the
beginnings of a 21st century food revolution.
MYRIAD 'GREEN BULLETS'
Unlike the last century's agricultural "Green Revolution",
which dramatically boosted world food production with new
high-yielding crop varieties and more irrigation, this
revolution must rely on myriad "green bullets" to tackle hunger.
They range from persuading farmers in Africa's drought zones
to switch from water-hungry rice to hardier crops like sorghum
or millet, to helping them build pest-proof grain silos that
allow food to be stored longer or sold when prices are higher.
With 70 percent of the world's people expected to live in
cities by 2050, finding ways to help city dwellers grow food in
small urban plots or roof gardens, or group together to buy food
at cheaper prices, is a major focus.
In California's East Palo Alto, for instance, older
inner-city residents - who are particularly vulnerable to high
food prices - are learning growing techniques for the first time
and producing food for themselves and a neighbourhood market.
Other urban areas are turning to vertical hydroponic gardens
clinging to the edge of skyscrapers.
Women - who grow at least 40 percent of food in Africa and
Asia - will need improved land rights and better access to
information, something being made much easier by the spread of
mobile phone technology, experts say.
Rural women in India's Andhra Pradesh state now use advance
drought warnings, relayed by Internet and mobile phone, to
switch to more drought-tolerant crops -- a move that has saved
harvests and helped stem the usual wave of migration to cities
in drought times.
Changing farming practices by adopting more water-conserving
drip irrigation or planting crops amid fertilizing trees, as is
now happening throughout Africa, will also be key.
So will cutting the at least 30 percent of the world's food
supply eaten by pests, spoiled on the way to market or thrown
away unused from plates and supermarkets.
Simply getting supermarkets to stop offering two-for-one
specials - which can encourage people to overbuy - would be a
start, some anti-hunger activists say, as would improving roads
in regions like South Asia and Africa where transport delays
mean produce often rots on the way to market.
Solutions to the threat of worsening hunger will vary by
region, by country, sometimes even from one farm or village or
apartment building to the next, experts say. Not all ideas will
succeed, and scaling up those that do prove to work, as quickly
as possible, will be essential.
In a world where an estimated 900 million people are already
hungry today, curbing surging consumption in rich nations and
those fast getting rich, especially India and China, will be
particularly important, experts say.
"If we look at the graph of (rising) human consumption,
that's the one to worry about," said Phil Bloomer, director of
campaigns and policy for Oxfam Great Britain. "That is a graph
that should strike panic in our hearts."
Persuading rich people to eat less meat and fewer milk
products, which take a lot of grain to produce, would go a long
way toward curbing ever-rising demand for grain.
'NO NORMAL TO GO BACK TO'
Many innovations focus on easing the adverse effects of
climate change on food production.
While warmer weather and growing levels of carbon dioxide in
the atmosphere could spur plant growth and food production in
some regions -- and open a few northern reaches of the world to
farming -- many more regions are expected to see worsening
losses from droughts, floods, storms, rising sea levels and
higher temperatures that can cause crop yields to drop.
"It used to be there was an extreme weather event here or
there but we knew that in a year or so things would go back to
normal," said Lester Brown, a food security and sustainability
expert, and president of the U.S.-based Earth Policy Institute.
"Now there is no normal to go back to."
That's why scientists from Bangladesh to Tanzania are
developing new resilient varieties of maize, wheat, rice and
other crops that can survive underwater, or with very little
rain, or even both extremes in the same season, and still
produce a reliable crop.
Other innovators are focusing on the effects of growing
"A substantial amount of our food production worldwide comes
from non-renewable groundwater sources, and in the long run that
is not sustainable," said Peter Gleick, a leading water expert
and head of the U.S.-based Pacific Institute for Studies in
Development, Environment and Security.
In villages where glacier-fed streams are set to become more
irregular or disappear in the years ahead, or where flooding
from heavy rain is quickly followed by drought, communities are
learning to harvest and store water to ensure supplies
throughout the year.
They are also developing water-conserving irrigation methods
to make what they have available last.
Will all such innovations be enough to feed 9 billion people
by 2050? Possibly, say experts, but success will depend on
making enough key changes fast enough.
In addition to on-the-ground solutions, those changes will
need to include major policy shifts -- including potentially a
ban on turning grain into biofuel or limits on food speculation.
"Food insecurity and climate change are already inhibiting
human well-being and economic growth throughout the world, and
these problems are poised to accelerate," said John Beddington,
Britain's chief science adviser, in a March report by the
International Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate
"Decisive policy action is required if we are to preserve
the planet's capacity to produce adequate food in the future."
(This story is part of a special multimedia report on global
hunger produced by AlertNet, a global humanitarian news service
run by Thomson Reuters Foundation)
(Editing by Tim Large and Sonya Hepinstall)