Food enough for all on this planet? Part 1

In a world where we are 6 billion people today moving towards 9 in 40 years, the question about food enough for us all is a vital and pressing issue of great importance for geopolitical stability on this planet.

Basic food raw materials (energy crops, fats and protein) are essential for food production in an increasingly competitive arena. They are attractive foods, but equal to being food these are also used as feed for animals and fish (with a return of one third in the form of protein rich foods) and recently also as biofuels and biochemicals represent equal economic opportunities to feed. Obviously this is not possible in a world where 3 more billions people will need food and one billion is hungry for more.

We already see the tendencies towards increasing food prices, the baseline of the FAO index is up 50 % in less than 4 years, and increasing. This has driven several hundred millions into poverty, as buying power now do not support enough and adequate food for their family. There are few or no signs saying that this trend will turn. In spite of all international organisations good intentions we, as a planet, are backing into the future.

The dilemma lies in the competing needs of raw materials for 4 highly competitive sectors. Quite attractive for the raw material producing countries, and that is industrialised countries in the northern hemisphere. The third world countries are importers of basic foods ingredients, not exporters. It is therefore the same economies who are making money on corn, soya and wheat who also make money on increasing oil prices.

This wedlock of competing markets is very attractive, but it is also draining resources of poor countries, so effective that some poor countries sell off rights to produce food in their own domain to foreign interests, acting on behalf of investors and countries.

But is it necessary for the world to accept this apocalyptic recipe. Are there no strategies that would break the chains? There must be, and the cure is obviously not simple, as the world seems to struggle. But as we today continue along the principle of "more of the same", maybe there also is an opening for radical scenarios typical for “think tanks”.

One example can be a ban of food grade raw materials in feed. Obviously not possible to implement overnight, but only a transfer of 20% from the feed to the food chain would be enough to feed the hungry people of the world. The feed industry would be faced with either soaring prices, or they would be quick in developing substitutes. And substitutes exist, so I presume this would be the only viable strategy. Of course none of these applications are ready to, but they never will be until the issue is forced.

  Just to mention a few opportunities:

1)     Food loss in developing countries amount to about 30 % of all foods available, and waste later in the value chain amount to a similar size in developed countries. Massive amounts of this is still of high nutritional value when it is thrown away, much could be used for feed purposes if we want to.

2)     Another example is the use of insects as a feed ingredient. They make out 80 % of biological biomass, but little is known of their composition, their acceptance as indirect ingredient in foods or for animals in feeds. There must be a great opportunity both in catch and for farming of insect species. We do already accept game as good food, and many of these have insects as part of their diet.

3)     Aquatic production is the third opportunity, the greatest opportunity of all. Micro and macro algae reproduce and grow at a rate much faster than what we see on land. In addition other sea species (fish and crustaceans) represent an even greater immediate potential. Today the world produces 30 mill tonnes of fish in aquaculture. Only a very small proportion of this is with optimal genetic resources for the purpose. Good breeding programmes may triple the production volume in the same facility. Very little aquaculture is developed along the ideas today. To top this, at sea self-supporting production plants do not exist altogether, and this approach would open up the oceans for production, that is in 70 % of the planet. We have been able to put a man on the moon, to build 15 storey platforms standing at 500 m depth in the sea, but not to produce food in an open water sea-shuttle, this should be possible.

Einar Risvik
Chief Scientific Officer, The Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture research

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