Third World Centre for Water Management


Hunger in a complex world

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Asit K. Biswas

Project Syndicate | May 1, 2012 

According to the United Nations Population Division, the world’s population reached seven billion in 2011. By 2050, that number will have risen to more than 9.3 billion. As the world’s population grows, so does pressure to eliminate hunger—but progress so far has left much to be desired.

In the early 1980’s, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was asked why, after 35 years of independence, the country had made only limited progress in alleviating poverty and hunger. She replied that government policies often had unexpected negative consequences in other areas—consequences that sometimes canceled out, or even exceeded, positive effects.

Today, many countries are learning Gandhi’s lesson. Indeed, in an increasingly complex and interconnected world, policies directed at a specific issue, such as hunger, can be ineffective—even counterproductive—unless they take into account related issues. After all, food cannot be produced, transported, distributed, or even eaten without significant effects on energy consumption, as well as effects on land, water supplies, health, and the environment.

For example, the agricultural sector consumes nearly 70% of the water used globally (in countries like India and Egypt, it uses around 90% of the available supply), and water often cannot be transported without substantial energy use. Likewise, large-scale energy production requires water; in some countries, including the United States and France, the energy sector is the principal consumer of water.

Moreover, all aspects of food, water, and energy production have environmental and health implications. Given this, it is impossible to address effectively one of these issues without accounting for its impact on the other sectors.

Consider biofuels, which are often promoted as a clean, accessible, low-carbon energy source for the transportation sector, thus potentially contributing to energy security. In 2000-2009, with support from government subsidies, global ethanol production increased four-fold, and biodiesel ten-fold. Today, biofuels account for 20% of global production of sugarcane, 9% of oilseeds and coarse grains, and 4% of sugar beet.

Since energy costs much more than food, biofuel subsidies have skewed crop patterns significantly. In the US, for example, ethanol accounted for 8% of transportation fuel in 2011, but consumed nearly 40% of the country’s maize production.

As countries increase their national biofuel targets, a huge amount of additional land will have to be cultivated, requiring an enormous quantity of water. Because these resources are not currently available, existing policies will have to be altered, likely diverting land and water from agricultural to biofuel production.

As a result, if current biofuel-policy trends continue, the price of coarse grains could increase by an average of 13% per year from 2013-2017, while the price of oilseed could rise by 7%, and that of vegetable oils by 35%. That would have a serious impact on world hunger. Indeed, the World Bank estimates that in the second half of 2010, the rise in food prices drove 44 million people in developing countries into extreme poverty (defined as income below $1.25 per day). If this trend continues, the outlook for world hunger will become increasingly grim.

To address the problem effectively, governments must change their approach. Policy-makers must recognize the interconnectedness of today’s challenges, and support innovative institutional arrangements that would promote and facilitate coordinated policy responses.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of Nestlé, is Chairman of the global public-private partnership 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG). Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.


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