Thirsty, Hungry, Poor and Unsustainable

Thirsty Hungry Unsustainable Four more Earths needed by 2030. Can Agriculture become climate-smart and sustainable? Our planet is in existence for last 4.5 billion years, but just about 12000 years back we started rudimentary and scattered farming.

By Rajendra Shende

Our planet is in existence for last 4.5 billion years, but just about 12000 years back we started rudimentary and scattered farming. Only 8000 years back we are known to have initiated organized agriculture to feed us and to feed those animals that also feed us. We satisfied our hunger and learned to survive and prosper by farming the products and raising the animals grown on the farm products. We called it ‘modern agriculture and animal husbandry.’

Just about 50 years back we started realizing that there is something missing in the way we are growing food and the way we are expanding the agriculture to feed the ever-growing population.

The world’s demand on forests, fisheries -also called ecological footprint- is overshooting the earth’s ability to replenish resources and absorb waste, including carbon dioxide emissions. According to the Global Footprint Network, the estimated level of resources and ecosystem services required to support human activities today is just over 1.6 Earths.

If we continue on the course estimated by moderate United Nations projections for increasing population and consumption, we would need the capacity of two Earths to keep up with our level of demand by 2030. If everyone on Earth lived as Australians do, it would take 5.4 Earths to sustain global consumption. If the entire world population followed US citizens’ example, it would take 4.8 Earths. The costs of this ecological overspending are becoming more evident in the form of deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Development by Destruction and Disparity

The humans cleared the forests to get more land for agriculture but failed to realize that the same forests help in growing more food on long term basis by enhancing the biodiversity that helps agriculture, holding moisture much needed for arid crops, preventing land degradation of the top fertile soil, reducing the intensity of the rains and decreasing the availability of the water as well as inputs like bio-fertilizer for the crops from the diverse tree leaves, and disturbing the balance of temperature, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide which are essential for healthy and sustained .

Rich farmers had the ways and means to compensate for these adverse effects. The industrial revolutions provided them costly fertilizers, green revolution provided them with hybrid seeds, and they pumped water deep from the ground for the thirsty crops. Rich got richer, even though they eroded the very basis of the farming i.e. ecosystems. What more hungry poor got poorer? Finally, by making ecosystem fragile and even breaking them beyond repairs we created unprecedented contrast in the history of our civilization.

So-called modern agriculture is resulting in more food per capita than ever before in human history. That is definitely an achievement. At the same time, as per the latest estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 800 million people still go hungry. An additional 2 billion people are suffering from malnutrition. The contrast does not stop here. While malnutrition is stunting the human growth, estimates of 2014 show the stunning flipside: 1.9 billion people were overweight, of these 600 million were obese!

The message that small or family farmers produce majority of the world’s food but still they remain poor and even go hungry is distressing and demoralizing.

The inequality and contrasts, particularly in India has devastated the very roots of Indian agriculture. The country with the largest production of milk, mangoes and bananas is none other than India. It is also the second largest producer of vegetables and fruits in the world and the largest producer of sugar. Then comes the flip side. India is home to the largest poor population in the world, about 400 million. Nearly half the children under age of 5 are malnourished- a fact that is publicly lamented as ‘national shame’ by former Prime Minister.

Hunger surrounded by obesity, malnutrition amidst plenty, poverty amidst riches are disturbing global contrasting trends stemmed from the unequal and unsustainable production and consumption of our civilization.

Global Consultations and SDGs

In year 2000, United Nations (UN) General Assembly agreed to Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. To keep the momentum, last year on 25th of September, adopted 17 bold new global goals-called as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address such colossal challenges related to, among others, hunger, poverty, malnutrition and sustainable agriculture. All the 193-member states of UN, developed as well as developing countries, unanimously agreed to meet these goals by 2030.

Formulation of these SDGs is the sequel of the consultative process undertook by UN across the continents that lasted for 3 years beginning in 2012 with the global meeting of Rio+20-meeting to review progress of 20 years after the Rio summit of 1992. These bold goals are built on its earlier 8 historic Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and its 18 targets formulated way back in year 2000 for its completion in 2015.

Report card of MDGs in its last year 2015 reveals mixed success with some countries succeeding in meeting part of the goals. The number of people living in extreme poverty, for example, declined by more than half, from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. MDGs, however, remained as unfinished agenda giving rise to unique challenges of disparities in income, production and consumption.

From 1st January 2016, the process of implementing SDGs has begun. The17 SDGs are transformative, universal and integrated visionary framework called ‘2030-Agenda for Sustainable Development’. It has 169 quantifiable and qualitative targets, and more than 800 indicators to be achieved by 2030. The progress will be reviewed regularly by taking selective countries for each review. While all 17 goals are interconnected, two specific goals include direct reference to food and agriculture:

SDG number 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

SDG number 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Challenge of meeting SDGs related to agriculture is formidable, considering that world is already facing the adverse impacts of climate change, low growth rates in economies in most of the developed world, and continued degradation of the ecosystems on which the agriculture and life on planet depends. Seriousness with which United Nations is taking the implementation of SDGs is evident from the fact that the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, the UN body has been set up to review progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The first review of the progress took place in New York between 11 to 20 July with the theme “Ensuring that no one is left behind”.

Ensuring Food Security

Meeting SDG -2, related to ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition is formidable task considering that the world would add another 1.2 Billion (equivalent to another India) people by 2030 to reach 8.5 billion. Though cutting of the forest for making increased land for agriculture and other development is fortunately on decline, even now every year a forest land equivalent of Germany is being sacrificed. As one of the first and simple process to stop such self-destructive process UNEP and FAO in partnership have initiated a worldwide campaign, ‘THINK.EAT.SAVE’.

‘Think. Eat. Save’ campaign is targeted to contribute to the food security by reducing food wasted by consumers, retailers and the hospitality industry. A recent study has revealed that about one third of all food production worldwide gets lost or wasted in the food production and consumption systems, amounting to 1.3 billion tonnes.

India is known to waste its perishable food products –vegetables and fruits in a staggering proportion. The existing food supply chain systems have been unable to cope with the fast changing demographic situation and mega-migrations of the population to the cities. The lack of efficient and effective supply chains is understood to lead to a variety of losses in the perishable food segment. In 2012, Indian farmers produced 240 million metric tonnes of horticultural produce, almost equal to its grain and cereals production. Various studies indicate that up to 40 pc of this produce was lost due to supply chain inefficiencies.

The transportation and distribution losses due to weak or absence of efficient supply chain are as high as USD 6-12 billion per annum from the agriculture sector alone. Recently, Government of India tried hard to reduce its current account deficit by USD 7.1 billion by restricting imports of gold and other electronic items. The comparison shows the importance of saving the wastage of food during transportation for the macro maneuvering of the Indian economy.

Norman Ernest Borlaug, agricultural scientist and Nobel Laureate considered by some to be the father of the green revolution once remarked that India’s food problem is more about its storage and distribution policies and infrastructure. The images of the rotten food bags in huge storages and statistics of the shortages in wake of the abundant stocks in the country are common in the media.

Food loss and waste refer to the decrease in mass (quantitative) or nutritional value (qualitative) of food – edible parts – throughout the supply chain starting from sowing the grains to consuming i.e. from farm to fork.

In industrialized nations, retailers and consumers discard around 300 million tonnes that is fit for consumption, around half of the total food squandered in these regions.  This is more than the total net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa and would be sufficient to feed the estimated 900 million people hungry in the world!

Food loss typically takes place at production, post-harvest, processing and distribution stages in the food supply chain. The study shows that this loss is significant in the developing countries

Food waste refers to food that completes the food supply chain up to a final product, of good quality and fit for consumption, but still doesn’t get consumed because it is discarded, whether or not after it is left to spoil. Food waste typically (but not exclusively) takes place at retail and consumption stages in the food supply chain. The survey has shown that the waste is significant more in the developed and emerging countries, including India.

Inspiring ideas like providing incentives (discounted price for consumers who do not waste their food in the restaurants) and massive awareness programmes in the school and many institutions have been initiated.

Sustainable Agriculture

SDG-15 is aimed at sustainable agriculture and will need restoration of the ecosystems and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

A focused effort at policy level to promote the forgotten traditional knowledge of producing and using the bio-fertilizers, climate friendly agricultural practices along with improving energy, carbon and water foot prints in agriculture production will be essential.

Combination of practices of using of land for energy producing crops, urban land/terrace use for food production, increasing the fertilizer equivalence value of animal manure, human feces, waste containing nutrients has been promoted.

The soil nutrients –like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients are essential for plant growth and food production. Excessive use of these nutrients through man-made mass produced fertilizers is not only depleting finite supplies, but triggering water pollution locally and beyond.

The worst, while many sub-Saharan African farmers struggle to access enough nutrients for quality crop production, in the developed world and in several rapidly developing regions of South and East Asia, there is the problem of excessive nutrient use which is triggering a web of unforeseen consequences.

India represents the similar unequal and indiscriminate use of fertilizers across its land among its rich and poor farmers. Without urgent and collective action, the next generation will inherit a world where many millions may suffer from food insecurity caused by too few nutrients, where the nutrient pollution threats from too much will become more extreme, and where unsustainable use of nutrients will contribute even more to biodiversity loss and accelerating climate change.

Global food production occupies 25 percent of all habitable land and is responsible for 70 per cent of fresh water consumption, 80 percent of deforestation, and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. It is the largest single driver of biodiversity loss and land-use change.

Making informed decision for example, that you purposefully select foods that have less of an environmental impact, such as organic foods that do not use chemicals in the production process. Choosing to buy locally can also mean that foods are not flown halfway across the world and therefore limit emissions.

For an agricultural activity to be counted as sustainable agriculture, it should satisfy three pre-conditions: it should not upset the natural environment, while at the same time it should be something that a farmer can afford to do and it should meet society’s needs. So it should be economically viable, socially responsible and ecologically sound.

What other countries doing

FAO has developed a common vision and an integrated approach to sustainability across agriculture, forestry and fisheries. This unified perspective – valid across all agricultural sectors and taking into account social, economic and environmental considerations – ensures the effectiveness of action on the ground and is underpinned by knowledge based on the best available science, and adaptation community and country levels to ensure local relevance.


  1. Improving efficiency in the use of resources
  2. Conserving, protecting and enhancing natural ecosystems
  3. Protecting and improving rural livelihoods and social well-being
  4. Enhancing the resilience of people, communities and ecosystems
  5. Promoting good governance of both natural and human systems

In July 2016, the review of progress on SDGs was carried out in reference to 22 country studies, which included China. Philippines and Republic of Korea were only other two Asian countries to have reported progress. Each country has prepared their base lines scenario to monitor the progress. India is yet to submit such report.

The Global Footprint Network also hopes for a change of the current trend of growing meat consumption in China. The government has outlined a plan to reduce its citizens’ meat consumption by 50%, which it calculates will lower the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from China’s livestock industry by 1 billion tonnes by 2030.

In Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, FAO is piloting good post-harvest management practices to improve quality, assure safety and reduce losses in prioritized traditional fruit and vegetable supply chains. Experts, trainers and value-chain stakeholders are being trained in good post-harvest management practices and new technologies, while market surveys are being carried out in priority.

Mauritius’ environmental performance in the areas of fisheries, forests, and agriculture has helped propel them into the top rankings. European countries like France, Austria, Switzerland and Nordic countries have excelled in small farming practices and reducing food wastage.

We have not yet found another Earth, and it is unlikely to be found in near future. Hence we have no option but to be sustainable. These countries have realized it and moving in the right direction. END

Rajendra Shende is the Chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre and a leading expert and advisor to private sector, governments and NGOs on alternate technologies and evidence-based policies on sustainable development.









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