“A change in thinking in developed countries must begin”
The corona pandemic has further complicated the fight against global hunger. The least developed countries in particular have been negatively affected by the impact of COVID-19. How can we sustainably secure the food supply for soon to be 10 billion people in this world, what new approaches are there? On the occasion of World Food Day on October 16, 2020, we addressed this issue with Prof. Dr. Andreas Gransee, an agricultural expert at K+S, who has been working on the subject of world nutrition from a scientific and practical perspective for many years.
Prof. Dr. Gransee, before the outbreak of the corona pandemic, an estimate was given that every ninth person worldwide was starving, i.e. over 800 million people. COVID-19 is now particularly affecting the developing countries very hard. What does this mean for the fight against hunger worldwide?
Without a doubt, the corona pandemic makes it even more difficult to achieve the UN's previous goal of eliminating hunger in the world. In many developing countries, the conditions for dealing with the pandemic are much less favorable than in developed countries. COVID-19 will therefore considerably increase the challenges of combating hunger.
Prof. Dr. Gransee on the topic of world nutrition
You are referring to the United Nations' goal of completely eliminating hunger, to bring it to zero, announced several years ago. From today's perspective, that is certainly a very difficult challenge, isn't it?
This was already the case before the corona pandemic. Of course, this is also a very complex issue and the fact that many logistical and communication channels are affected by the pandemic makes it even more difficult. Agricultural production is a global challenge and therefore developing countries, which have already had difficulties in fighting hunger, are particularly affected.
Apart from COVID-19, there are other important factors influencing world food supply: climate change, natural disasters, wars and conflicts. These factors are also increasing rather than decreasing. Realistically regarded, the number of the starving will also therefore rather rise than fall, right?
More efforts will at least be needed to prevent this from happening. This is particularly obvious in the case of climate change. Once again, this year we have experienced this here in Germany: Meanwhile drought and water shortage have become a serious problem. 20 years ago, this was not yet the case, at least not to this extent. From a global perspective, it is becoming apparent to an even greater extent. Therefore, we must find new approaches to address the challenges posed by climate change.
Additionally, the world population continues to grow. The United Nations expects the population to increase from the current figure of just over 8 billion to around 10 billion by 2050. How big is this challenge?
We have been dealing with this question for some time now: How will we be able to feed these additional people in 2050? We must distinguish the issue between what is technologically feasible and the additional factors that make food security more difficult. I am convinced that it will be technologically feasible to feed humanity today and in the future. In other words, it will be possible to provide enough quantities of plant and animal products. If we can reasonably exploit the yield potential, it will be possible to feed people. It is therefore not a technological problem, but rather an implementation problem in the individual regions. Each individual region has to find and implement a solution, and that's what makes it so difficult. On top of that, COVID-19 complicates these efforts.
According to you, yield potential must be leveraged. Obviously, not all regions can provide this either. What must agriculture contribute to food security?
Speaking about the rural population in developing countries, we need to consider the infrastructures. These structures significantly differ from those in developed countries. The vast majority of these agricultural producers is small farmers. These small farmers have very different economic conditions compared to a large farm in Brazil or the USA. This means that these people have to be enabled to produce or perform. On the one hand, they must have access to operating resources. In the case of agricultural production, these are mainly seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Secondly, they must also be financially able to do so. They must emerge from subsistence farming and consider "farming as a business". In other words, operate as a business model that produces for the market and not just in their immediate environment. Without surplus production, this goal will not be achieved. Thirdly, there must be a transfer of knowledge. This is often underestimated. Small farmers in developing countries must preserve agricultural knowledge and adapt it to their own circumstances. In my view, these are the three most important prerequisites for sustainably feeding the growing world population.
Looking at the developed world, at the western countries, conventional agriculture is often criticized there, especially because of environmental issues. How do we manage to secure food supplies in this country in a sustainable way?
In the developed countries, a change in thinking about agricultural production must begin. Further investment in research and development is necessary. There are still many open questions to which we have no answers. This is what we must focus on. We need sustainable solutions. It is absolutely essential to consider the aspects of climate change and the environment. I would not see this as an obstacle, but as an opportunity. On the one hand, in the developed countries we have a responsibility to structure agricultural production in a sustainable manner while taking environmental and climate goals into account. On the other hand, we must develop solutions to support other regions of the world. I believe this is our duty.
What is the role of fertilizer producers? What contribution can they make to securing the world's food supply?
Generally, agricultural production in open-air fields continues to be right and important for plants and animals that serve human nutrition. This will also be the case in the next decades. Without any doubt, plants and animals need minerals and nutrients. Therefore, manufacturers of such products will of course continue to be important. The second aspect is how to proceed. Certainly, there is still room for development in the following two directions: On the one hand, it is necessary to develop products that are more precisely tailored to the customer's needs than in the past. There are approaches like fertigation, for example. We are far from being close to completion in research and development. Secondly, we have to consider the exact needs of the plants and how this can be measured. New technologies such as sensors, satellites and algorithms will play a much greater role in this. In other words: fertilizers will remain important or perhaps become even more important. We must, however, become better both on the product side and on the application side to increase the resource efficiency of the products.
Finally, what can each of us do to contribute to securing the world's food supply?
Particularly in Germany, wastage of food is the most significant factor. This concerns both private consumers and the food trade, for example supermarkets, where many groceries are destroyed. This is difficult, I know, and of course it also requires a change in the consumer behavior of each individual. At least however, this is something we can do ourselves and directly influence. We also need to address the question of the value of food to us. In our regions, this has become somewhat out of focus. I believe that food is often worth more than it costs in some supermarkets. We need to bring this back into the right balance.
Prof. Gransee, many thanks for the interview!
Prof. Dr. Andreas Gransee, an agricultural expert at K+S
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