food feature main
Across Asia, farmers are developing innovations that are building their resilience to climate-related shocks. These solutions are needed more urgently than ever as the global population swells and climate change reduces the amount of arable land that can be used to cultivate food. Image: Shutterstock

How will we feed 10 billion people?

With the global population set to rise from 7 billion today to almost 10 billion in 35 years, feeding the sheer number of people will be one of the world’s greatest challenges. To mark World Food Day on 16 October, Eco-Business looks at the global food system and why we need to be smarter about how we grow, consume and manage food.

Filipino farmer Simeon Olivenza, 45, has been making a modest living from planting rice and vegetables on his three hectares of land in Irosin, Luzon Island, for more than two decades.

But about 10 years ago, he realised that the weather was becoming increasingly unpredictable and hence, challenging for his crops.  

“In 2000, the weather started becoming more erratic – sometimes during the wet season, when we usually plant the seedlings, it is very hot and dry. And when it is meant to be dry, when we harvest, the rain comes pouring in,” says Olivenza. 

On many occasions over the past few years, each time the crops were just ready to be harvested, they would be ravaged by the rain. It was not like this during the 1990s, he recalls. 

Olivenza’s story is one that is heard all over Asia and elsewhere in the world where people who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods are grappling with climate change. 

In recent years, farmers have been increasingly hit by droughts, floods, typhoons and hurricanes, and their situation may get more dismal yet.

The global population is projected to swell from the current 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050, according to latest projections by the United Nations (UN) in July.

Image: Asian Development Bank

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – an agency set up in 1945 to lead international efforts to defeat hunger – had estimated in its latest projections in 2009 that if the global population reached 9.1 billion by 2050, global food production will need to rise by 70 per cent.

Yet, the majority - about 80 per cent - of global arable land is already used for growing food. The world needs to collectively find new and better ways to feed everyone, and do it quickly.

Underscoring this, one of the UN’s newly-adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals - which sets the global development agenda for the next 15 years - includes ending global hunger and ensuring everyone gets access to nutritious and sufficient food all year round.

Beau Damen, natural resources officer at the FAO’s Asia office at Bangkok, says that theoretically, it is possible for the world to produce enough food in 2050 for a population that will have increased to more than 9 billion. 

Even now, there is enough food to go around the world. But an estimated one in nine people to go to bed hungry each night, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). Hidden hunger – or malnutrition – affects an additional 2 billion.

This begs the question: Why?

The answer lies in the world’s currently wasteful and inefficient food production system, where as much as a third of food grown on farms rot before they arrive at retailers due to inadequate storage and transport solutions.

At the stores, another big chunk of it is simply thrown away because they do not look good. And more gets tossed out by households and food outlets. 

At the same time, the planet has less and less arable land that can be used for agriculture. Because of deserfication and permanent water loss, the areas suitable for cultivating food in Africa and South America could shrink by almost 20 per cent, which has important implications for the burgeoning populations in these regions.

Krishna Krishnamurthy, climate change and hunger analyst at the World Food Programme, tells Eco-Business that the overall effect of climate change on agricultural production “is expected to be especially negative in South Asia”, where some estimates suggest that climate shifts could reduce production by up to 40 per cent by the end of the century.

Why is climate change such a big deal?

Farmers rely on specific weather conditions, such as temperature, rainfall, nutrient levels, soil moisture and water availability to grow food. This makes the crops extremely vulnerable to changes in the climate.

India, for instance, was hit by the worst drought in nearly four decades in 2009, no thanks to the El Nino weather pattern. The disaster cut rice output in the world’s number two rice producer by 10 million tonnes, or just over 10 per cent of the previous year’s harvest.

Image: World Resources Institute

El Nino is a natural phenomenon where waters of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean warm, triggering a range of consequences globally. Parts of South America typically see heavy rainfall, while Australia, Southeast Asia and southern Africa face warmer, drought-like conditions. 

And because of rising global temperatures caused by climate change, El Nino occurrences have become more intense, research has shown. A 2013 article by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, published in Science, one of the most world’s most reputable scientific journals, shows the link between the two.

In the Philippines, where close to 40 per cent of the workforce is engaged in agricultural work, the impact of El Nino has been devastating. 

During the 1998 El Niño, for example, the country was hit by a record-breaking drought, causing the production of two of its main staple crops, rice and maize, to plunge by 27 per cent, and 44 per cent respectively, recalls Wilhemina Pelegrina, ecological agriculture regional campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Over the last two years, rural areas across Philippines have also recorded steadily increasing temperatures since local grassroots organisation Rice Watch and Action Network began taking measurements at their weather stations in 33 regions about a decade ago.

The non-profit group helps small rice farmers in the country improve their living conditions and livelihoods, and promotes sustainable agriculture and development.

“There are some recordings, for instance, that show in the last three years we have seen less rainfall at many sites, says Hazel Tanchuling, secretariat coordinator at the Rice Watch. “Temperatures in most areas have also been hitting record highs, compared with 30-year averages.”

This farming year, which started in June, there is a strong El Nino pattern in the Philippines and serious drought is likely to happen to many areas by the end of the year, Tanchuling adds.

Effects of climate change seen in Indonesia. This grass patch was previously farmland and has dried up. Image: United Nations

Southeast Asia’s dry season is typically from December to March or April and the wet season lasts from June to September or October.

Research undertaken by FAO in Thailand indicates that some regions in the country are already experiencing temperatures above a threshold of 34 degrees Celsius during the growing season, which is reducing their yields, says FAO’s Damen.The looming El Nino could also spell trouble for farmers in other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, which will face dry conditions as they prepare to plant their crops.

This makes the task of adaptation more urgent than ever. 

Gwyneth Marcelo Fries, senior sustainability advisor with Forum for the Future, Asia Pacific, a non-profit group advises companies on sustainable development, says: “If we’re lucky, the changes we see will be linear and gradual, and our agricultural systems will be able to adapt.”

“If we’re unlucky, then we might see sudden changes; or a much more variable climate – and this will pose significant stress to agricultural systems. Quick adaptation is a big challenge.”

Adaptation, solutions

The good news is, farmers across the region are already developing innovations that are building their resilience to climate-related shocks.

Replacing chemical nitrogen fertilisers with organic ones, improving water and rice management, and restoring the health of soil are just a few examples of how sustainable farming methods could counter some of the effects of climate change on agriculture.

One key solution might be to grow hardier, “salt tolerant” rice, says WFP’s Krishnamurthy. In the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam - where 60 per cent of the country’s rice is grown - farmers are confronting rising sea levels and worsening floods. By 2030, salt water could contaminate 41 per cent of the Delta, according to the WFP.

A rice field in the Mekong Delta, where a few organisations are experimenting with climate-tolerant varieties of the crop. Image: Shutterstock 

For upland rice farmers in Laos facing longer dry periods, the answer could be creating water reservoirs, and for fishermen in the Philippines, additional training and skills should be provided so their livelihoods are not so reliant on a fishing boat that could be vulnerable to typhoon damage, he adds.

Rice Action has also been helping farmers test climate-tolerant varieties through its Climate Resiliency Field School, where Olivenza from Irosin learnt about the suitability of certain crops in certain weather conditions.

“So we plant rice varieties that need less water, that would require watering once a week, and when we really can’t plant rice, we shift to vegetables,” Olivenza says. He also experimented with organic farming at the advice of other farmers who say that this method of agriculture boosts yields.

“I resorted to herbs like lemongrass and other flowering plants to deal with pests. And over time, it is much cheaper to do organic farming, because I no longer use chemicals in my soil,” he says.

Simeon Olivenza examining a sample of climate-resilient crops. Image: Rice Watch and Action Network

Olivenza says because the soil is healthy, the crops find it easier to adjust to climate impact because they are much stronger. His yields indeed went up. Previously, he got 40 kilogrammes of rice in one gunny sack. Now he gets 45 to 46 kilos.

Industry specialists say each community must find solutions that are specific to its conditions and challenges, and more investments are desperately needed. Alison Eskesen, Grow Asia’s director of knowledge and accountability, says that supporting smallholder farmers with more information, as well as access to finance and markets is essential because the agricultural sector employs up to 70 per cent of the workforce in some Asean countries.

About 80 to 90 per cent of the region’s farmers are smallholders.

Grow Asia is a partnership between the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) secretariat and World Economic Forum. Its mandate is to leverage the strengths of multinational corporations, local agribusinesses, civil society, farmers and academia to create positive impact on the livelihoods of farmers in the Asean countries.

The group’s aim is to improve the productivity, profitability and environmental sustainability of 10 million smallholder farmers by 20 per cent, by 2020, Eskesen says. “How we can support the scaling of climate mitigation measures at the farm level while still supporting smallholder farmers to improve their yields and profitability is a central discussion among our partners,” she adds.

In Vietnam for example, a Grow Asia partnership has been able to work with farmers to help them better manage water by using drip irrigation and mulching. This helped increase the crop yield of 3000 coffee farmers by 10.8 per cent and grow their income by 14 per cent while reducing their water footprint by 40 per cent and carbon emissions by 54 per cent. 

“The government has found the partnership results in coffee so compelling that they have gone on to institutionalise it,” Eskesen says. Now there’s a coffee coordination board in Vietnam that will implement the climate mitigation measures across the entire country, she adds. 

Transforming urban spaces

One other area emerging as a key solution to food security is urban farming. FAO says globally there are 800 million people involved in urban farming. 

The world’s largest urban farm is a 69,000 square feet former steel factory in Newark, New Jersey in the United States. When finished in October, it will be able to grow up to two million pounds of kale, arugula and romaine lettuce per year.

AeroFarms’s aeroponics and LED technology that uses mist rather than water to grow plants. Picture: AeroFarm

In Asia, the biggest urban indoor farm is in Japan, a 25,000-square-feet semiconductor factory in Miyagi province which was abandoned following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck the Fukushima nuclear plants.

AeroFarm, the U.S. company behind it, claims that its techniques, which uses tall towers of LED-light trays, consumes 95 per cent less water to grow the same amount of greens in a traditional outdoor farm. It can also yield 75 times more in crops and uses no pesticides. 

Set up by a local entrepreneur Shigeharu Shimamura in response to local vegetable shortages after the disaster, the facility produces 10,000 heads of lettuce daily, which makes it 100 times more productive than a conventional farm of the same size.

It also uses 40 per cent less power and 99 per cent less water than outdoor farms in Japan, while generating significantly less food waste.

Experts say that although there is potential in urban farming, key challenges remain before it can be scaled up to have a large impact on the global food system.

“There are indeed some innovative case studies out there but these are mainly small projects,”says Mahfuz Ahmed, principal climate change specialist of Asian Development Bank. He is not convinced that the solution will be scaleable. Investment in science and technology in farming is a “smarter” solution, he says.

“National or regional programmes that invest in climate infrastructure or technology to help mitigate the effects of climate change will also help,” he adds.

An example of an infrastructure project that is linked to food is the WFP’s Food Assistance for Assets programme. Using food vouchers or cash transfers, WFP gets communities to repair irrigation systems, build bridges, conserve soil and set up local granaries.

A Filipino agriculture official examining rice crops that local farmers are experimenting with. Image: Rice Watch and Action Network

Not only do these projects reduce risks from natural disasters and contribute to long-term benefits for the environment and for livelihoods, they also increase a community’s resilience to climate change.

While a lot of the focus is on the role of technology, science and research, more attention should be paid to a more prevalent problem - food waste.

The green bullet

“In Asia, we see a lot of opportunities for collaborative action around food logistics,” says FFTF’s Fries. “For many perishable food supply chains, the structure, practices and power dynamics are much the same as they were 50 years ago.”

Up to half of perishables originating in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia is wasted or rots before they reach the retail stage.

Improving logistics systems and infrastructure, particularly along major food supply chains, increases the availability of food and the resiliency of the entire region when confronted with a food crisis or natural disaster, Fries says.

Image: The World Bank

Indeed, food waste is the “low hanging” fruit in the food security problem that must be explored first, says ADB’s Ahmed. Governments in food-producing regions need to have policies that help farmers reduce waste and get to market faster, he says.

Facing down climate change and the food challenge is both a mammoth task and a huge opportunity. While there is no silver bullet – or ‘green’ bullet as some might say – long-term planning and action must be taken to ensure food security for all.

Many experts say the solution lies in making changes to the way food is planted, harvested, shipped, sold, stored and consumed, and ensuring that these processes are all sustainable. Others say that sustainable agriculture covers not only the technical aspects of farming but its economic and social aspects as well.

These would include dismantling trade barriers and billion-dollar subsidies in countries such as the U.S., Europe and even Japan so that farmers elsewhere can sell their food for a fair price and food is distributed where it is needed.  

But clearly, there is a lot more that needs to be done.Some progress is already being made by governments, civil society and even companies to address these aspects of agriculture and food. The Trans Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement signed this month by 12 nations including the U.S., Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and Australia, will allow some food types to move freely across these borders. 

Despite the many challenges and risks, the world has the resources and technology to eliminate hunger and ensure long-term food security for all, FAO’s Damen says.

“What we need to do is mobilize the political will to ensure that we use this knowledge to adopt effective policies and invest in the agriculture sectors in a way that helps them to grow sustainably,” he says. “The time to act is now.”

With additional reporting by Medilyn Manibo. 

Did you find this article useful? Join the EB Circle!

Your support helps keep our journalism independent and our content free for everyone to read. Join our community here.

leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →