Growth opportunities and growing pains in a changing global food system

By Alesha Black

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Editor's note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.

Today, more than 53 percent of the global population lives in cities. In 1900, this was only 13 percent. In a little over a century, we've gone from a largely rural world, in which most people were engaged directly in farming or related rural activities, to one where most people buy their food quite far from the farm gate where it is produced.

Consider the enormous logistics feat that occurs each day around the world to unite rural food supply with urban food need; for most, it's taken for granted. Here in the US, our strong infrastructure, logistics sophistication, and broad networks of retail outlets ensure the sweat equity put in by farmers translates to food on your plate that is affordable, diverse, and bountiful. But it wasn't always this way in the US. And in many parts of the world, it still isn't. 

Lets Talk Food

This year's Council report on food security explores how the pressures of swelling urban populations have previously transformed food supply chains across the globe and how this trend is unfolding even now, particularly looking at South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The process of simultaneously increasing production and building the pathways for its distribution is not automatic. We all know the statistics: by 2050 we need to feed 9 billion inhabitants. What we may not consider is that increasing production alone won't get us there. If farmers are able to increase the production of their dairy cows through improved genetics and animal health but a proper cold chain fails to reach deep enough into their rural area to carry the milk it to the consumer, not only does the farmer miss out on a promising business opportunity but milk prices may remain too high for families who both want to drink it and could benefit from its added nutrients.  

So what is missing to help get things from A to B?  We know from history that small and medium enterprises, like small processors or traders, have a huge amount to contribute to the growth of these changing supply chains. They are already operating in rural areas in emerging economies and they also offer important off-farm jobs as farming families look for other options to improve their livelihoods.

However, there are also big opportunities for larger companies, both domestic and multinational, to bring the benefits of scale, know-how, and financial capital to bear on these supply chains. Investments are needed up and down the chain from improving access to inputs on farm or developing food processing capacity to ensuring healthy, prepared foods are available to urban populations that spend increasingly less time cooking. For the entrepreneurs who can envision it, opportunity awaits. In Africa alone, it's estimated that by 2030, the food and agriculture industry will be valued at $1 trillion.

But while there is a historical blueprint of sorts to determine where the emerging food system might be headed, there is always room to ask how it can be done better, cheaper, and with less environmental impact? With better eating habits that promote better health? With greater inclusion for those who might otherwise be passed over in the excitement be part of new market development?

Like the cell phone leapfrogging the landline, emerging food systems stand poised to innovate and remix the current technologies and standard operating procedures. Businesses and entrepreneurs can grasp the vision and governments have to pave the way: literally and metaphorically. Without good infrastructure, the physical transport of goods will stand in the way of the most basic unity of supply and demand. Without good infrastructure, water may not reach the farm to grow the vegetables that health conscious city dwellers want. Equally bad, without good policy to manage resources, the water may not last.

The policy environment is just as important as the physical infrastructure. For rapidly changing food systems, this means sophisticated and enabling policy that considers everything from setting base interest rates to secure land titling to food safety regulations. Thanks to new developments in data collection, making better informed decisions should get easier in the coming years. Still, governments will need support to develop and adjust policy. Civil society has many roles to play in assisting this process-from think tanks analyzing critical policy issues to human rights groups elevating the voices of the marginalized.  Civil society must also be actively at the table.

What's clear from all of this is that there is room for everyone to work toward a food system that feeds us all and serves us all. Food security is a necessary starting point for global security. The US government has long ago realized this particular truth, as well as the many other reasons that make agricultural development a worthy cause. Indeed, Feed the Future has been a stellar example of how good seeds bear good fruit in time. We look forward to continuing this important dialogue with all of you at our Symposium on April 26th and in the months to come.

About the author: Alesha Black is the Director of the Global Food and Agriculture Program at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.   To learn more about Alesha, visit:  https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/expert/alesha-black


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