Adjusting the global food system could feed an additional 1 billion people

A record 345 million people around the world are currently facing acute food insecurity, the United Nations World Food Program reported this year – or, as program chief David Beasley ominously sums it up, they are “walking the edge of starvation. And this critical food deficit has only grown in urgency.

Although food security levels have been declining for decades, recent crises have exacerbated this decline.

COVID-19 has severely disrupted food supply chains, making 35.5% of the population food insecure for the first time, especially among low-income families. Droughts induced by climate change are drying up agricultural land. The war in Ukraine has caused the prices of fertilizers, cooking oil and grain to skyrocket by blocking crucial exports.

It’s a complex mess that will ultimately require a slew of interventions to fix it completely – but last week scientists presented an intriguing way to help ease the burden.

It might be prudent, they say, to redirect some of the resources we use to feed livestock, such as grain crops and fish fit for human consumption, to our food supply. The team thinks these animals might instead be eating certain food by-products that humans would typically throw away. Things like sugar beets, citrus pulp and crop residues. And after modeling such adjustments, the researchers calculated that it was possible to increase our collective food supply by up to 13% in calories and 15% in protein content.

It’s enough to feed One billion more people.

Many people line up to receive rations.  It seems to be night.

People line up at a food distribution center in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2021.

Victor Moriyama/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Making more efficient use of by-products and residues from the food system can reduce feed competition and increase the global food supply without increasing the use of precious natural resources,” said Vilma Sandström, postdoctoral researcher at the Aalto University and first author of a study on the concept. published in the journal Nature Food.

However, this type of pet food handling tactic is not exactly a new concept. Scientists have been back and forth for years to find out if livestock consumables can be repurposed, with some saying such competition isn’t exactly huge.

In 2017, in fact, a separate study found that 86% of dry livestock feed, including residues and by-products, is currently inedible to humans, so food loss due to animal feed is minimal. Yet, according to the team’s new study, that remaining 14% could be somewhat flexible to the benefit of the food supply system as a whole. Additionally, a previous study that Sandström and his colleagues developed – on reducing food loss through supply chain management – ​​outlines how we can increase food supply by around 12%.

“Combined with the use of by-products as animal feed, this would amount to about a quarter more food,” Matti Kummu, associate professor at Aalto University and co-author of the study, said in a statement. .

Perhaps small steps like these will end up making the food security crisis worse.

A man holding a blue plastic bag selects from free food options in a fridge on an empty street.

Theotis Stacy, 64 at the time, takes free food from a community fridge in Miami in 2020.

Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Is it safe for animals? For us?

Two questions naturally arise from the team’s proposal.

First, is it ethically wrong to take fresh feed for livestock and replace it with crop residues and by-products from feed intended for us? Second, is it healthy for us to feast on items traditionally given to animals?

“By-products and residues from the food system are already widely used in animal feed around the world,” Sandström said of the first concern. “What we’re suggesting is to increase this use in areas where there is potential for increase.”

She also considers another possible setback: some by-products could be of lower nutritional quality or contain compounds known to reduce animal productivity. The team’s study, however, made sure to model a scenario with this caveat in mind and found that “particularly in cattle nutrition, it is possible to formulate diets based entirely on non-competing feeds for food, even at very high levels of animal production”.

Regarding the second concern, Sandström admits that a paradigm shift would be needed if we are to introduce new food options to communities. This is because most of the fish typically used in livestock feed, for example, are small, bony species that we may not be used to eating. But perhaps, she suggests, these fish can be canned, cured, cured or processed in special ways, they could prove to be great inexpensive and highly nutritious options for people who don’t not necessarily have access to more expensive fish.

People dressed in colorful clothing, many holding babies, gather around a yellow building.

Mothers line up to have their children examined by health workers and to receive nutritious pasta at a health center in Paoua, Central African Republic, in 2021.

Barbara Debout/AFP via Getty Images

Nonetheless, the team believes its new global food system plan is a viable way to help a wide range of people in need. Moreover, his plan does not require any additional resource extraction. It just takes a bit of reframing, which is why the team also calls it a durable solution.

“Currently, the global food system is one of the main causes of environmental degradation,” Sandström said. “It occupies more than a third of the Earth’s land surface, uses 70% of all freshwater withdrawals and causes 20% to 30% of total climate change emissions.”

Complete with policy

Even if the idea of ​​Sandström and his fellow researchers comes to fruition, it is unlikely to be a stand-alone answer to the pressing problem of global food insecurity.

The team’s theoretical excess food supply would be unevenly distributed across the world. It would most likely affect primarily developed countries, rather than the developing countries that need it the most.

Three people in hairnets and pale blue uniforms prepare food behind a fence to deliver it to those in need.

Social workers prepare and serve food through a plastic curtain at an ‘olla comun’ community kitchen in Santiago, Chile, in 2020.

Tamara Merino/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In North America, for example, the study indicates that almost 20% of livestock feed competes with the human food supply, while in Europe it is around 16%. In Africa, the share of food-grade feed in animal feed is less than 4%, and in Latin America it is 8%.

Thus, it is important to combine a change in animal feed with other policy measures such as improved trade flows and dietary modifications, which is why the study researchers began to analyze all aspects the functioning of the food web of society.

They are looking for loopholes, gaps and missed opportunities.

“It was the first time that anyone had collected food and feed flows in this detail on a global scale, from terrestrial and aquatic systems, and combined them,” Kummu said. “It allowed us to understand how much by-product and food residue is already being used, which was the first step in determining the untapped potential.”

Comments are closed.