Thinking about the future of global food systems has become more critical than ever. The impacts of climate change – among them, changes in soil quality, rainfall, pest regimes, seasonal growth patterns, as well as land degradation and reduced biodiversity – have impacted the agricultural and aquatic food production systems around the world. Indeed, the causal links between climate change and food security are manifesting more clearly, particularly in the developing world, where nutritional deficiencies are common, as is the prevalence of farm-centric rain-fed agricultural systems. This report reimagines the future of food and how countries in the Global South, including India, can build resilient food systems.
There is no shortage of problems related to nutrition and public health: hunger, malnutrition, food-borne diseases and food insecurity, among others. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that each year nearly 600 million people (7.5% of the world’s population) become ill from eating contaminated food and 420,000 die as a result. Children under five bear 40% of the burden of foodborne illness. Almost a third of the world’s population did not have access to adequate food in 2020; three billion could not eat healthily. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has found that around 720 to 811 million people face hunger. Rates of undernourishment among children have also risen alarmingly.
The problems of poor food security, food insecurity and unsustainable food systems are closely linked. These have been further exacerbated by climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, and have disproportionately affected some populations more than others. The importance of access to safe and nutritious food therefore cannot be overstated.
With a rapidly growing human population and soaring demand for food, the extensive use of agrochemicals, i.e. pesticides and fertilizers, has become the norm to increase livestock and crop production. . Without chemical pesticides and crop protection in general, more than half of the world’s crops would be destroyed by insects, weeds and diseases. Food production per acre would decline rapidly; the area of land used for growing crops is expected to increase. This, in turn, would adversely affect wildlife habitats and ecosystems and dilute soil quality due to erosion. There is also the likelihood of higher food prices and reduced food production.
The use of agrochemicals, however, comes at a perilous cost. Chemical contamination alters the biochemical composition of foods and can lead to a range of illnesses from diarrhea to cancer and neurodegenerative conditions, reproductive and developmental changes and respiratory damage. In the United States (US), for example, 35% of all cancer cases can be attributed to an unhealthy diet (i.e. low consumption of whole grains and high consumption of processed foods) and chemical pesticides present in the foods consumed. Some 385 million cases of accidental acute pesticide poisoning occur worldwide each year, 11,000 of which result in death.
It is relevant to note that even though developed countries use 80% of the pesticides produced in the world, more than half of the recorded deaths due to pesticides are reported in the poorest countries. This highlights the importance of food safety regulations; in southern countries, there is a lack of occupational safety standards on food composition, weak enforcement of rules and regulations, and insufficient knowledge of pesticide use.
In Egypt, for example, milk samples tested in 1990 contained between 60 and 80% pesticide residues, while in the United States, 50% contained such residues. Consequently, the nature of the food consumed weighs heavily on public health, even more so in poor economies. Food and agricultural regulations around the world must take into account not only the growing demand for food and the need for increased production, but also the safety of the food produced.
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The article was written by Shoba Suri and Aparna Roy.