Adam Shaw

Food insecurity


Making sure the world has enough to eat means we have to face both moral and technical issues.

Making sure the world has enough to eat means we have to face both moral and technical issues. If someone was starving outside your front door, it would be difficult to enjoy a three course meal inside.

But since the starving and under-fed millions are out of sight, we are able to put them out of mind. Whether we should continue to eat what we can afford whilst others don’t eat at all, is the moral question.

The technical question is whether innovation and science can continue to increase the productivity of agriculture to provide more food for millions of more mouths from the same land resources.

I’ve travelled to New York to meet Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute and Special Advisor on Hunger to United Nations. He was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” twice, in 2004 and 2005.

I’ve come to meet him to discuss whether technology and innovation can help the growing challenge of feeding the planet.

Sachs believes that at least part of the solution lies in “smarter farming, meaning using a lot of information for much more accurate local farming.”

One of the keys, he says, is ‘micro dosing’ where you put just the right amount of nutrients into the soil in the right place at the right time. But that requires a lot more local soil testing, such as mass spectroscopy, to measure the functional properties of the soil.

The scale of the technological challenge is very large indeed. African agricultural productivity, according to Sachs, has been at roughly one ton of grain per hectare, compared to three or four tons per hectare in other parts of the developing world for 50 years.

But it’s not just agricultural technologies which we have to worry about.

Much of our problem, Sachs argues, is down to our obsession with meat. As middle income countries become more affluent, they add meat to the diet.

Meat puts additional strain on the system because feeding animals with feed grains to eat the meat adds an extra burden. For beef it takes 10-15 kg of feed grain for 1 kg of beef, so you can see that if the beef portion of the diet rises, that puts an incredible multiplier effect on the demand for basic grains.

For all the talks of crisis however, Sachs claims to be basically optimistic. He believes if we can avoid the climate change worst outcomes, we can avoid the worst food insecurity outcomes.

We’re living in an age of marvellous technological breakthroughs. The information revolution is deep, and we haven’t begun to tap its real potential. So there are huge advances that can be made but they won’t happen on their own.

In other words, we have the technology, all we need is the will to use it.

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