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The global challenge of food and nutrition security

By Paul Polman and Daniel Servitje,

Paul Polman is chief executive officer of Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies. Daniel Servitje is chief executive officer of Group Bimbo, the largest baking company in the world. They are co-chairs of B-20, the food security task force for the Group of 20.

Imagine all the food mankind has produced over the past 8,000 years. Now consider that we need to produce that same amount again — but in just the next 40 years if we are to feed our growing and hungry world.

Seven billion people live on Earth, and the population is growing by 77 million every year. That’s a country the size of Indonesia every three years. By 2050, 9 billion people will live on our planet.

Amid this rapid growth, more than 850 million people go to bed hungry. An additional billion do not get sufficient nutrients in their diet.

These data are both unacceptably high and a stain on our collective conscience.

There are lifetime health implications for those unfortunate people, as well as considerable negative impacts on economic productivity and significant costs of health care.

To alleviate this situation, global food production must increase 70 percent by 2050.

The planet is already stressed — about water in particular — and most of its next 2 billion inhabitants will be born in areas where the stresses are greatest. The United Nations expects India, China and Nigeria to be the world’s most populous nations in 2050.

And things are not getting any easier. The agricultural sector accounts for 70 percent of water use and up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change could reduce yields by more than 20 percent in many areas within developing countries — think of the floods in Thailand and the droughts in the Horn of Africa. Changing temperatures also contribute to food price volatility, which has a direct affect on the poor and on child nutrition.

Agriculture faces dual challenges: becoming more sustainable on a dwindling resource base while having to feed an increasing number of people. To provide food and nutrition security in the coming decades will require a major and sustained effort by all stakeholders, including business.

We believe that this requires a new vision for sustainable and equitable growth.

The good news is that food security is firmly on the political agenda of the Group of Eight, the Group of 20 and at this week’s U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). And business has been invited to contribute.

As co-chairs of the B-20 Food Security Task Force, we have led a group of CEOs and other stakeholders to provide actionable recommendations for the G-20 to achieve a 50 percent increase in production and productivity by 2030.

We have proposed detailed recommendations to encourage governments to adopt national food and nutrition security programs (supported by public-private partnerships). Most critically, companies have committed to investing $15 billion to help boost agricultural productivity 50 percent by 2030.

We have identified five priority areas: increasing investment in agricultural productivity; improving market function; ensuring more sustainable food production (including water resource management); accelerating access to technology; and integrating and prioritizing nutritional needs.

This productivity growth must deliver food and nutrition security for all in an environmentally sustainable manner, while ensuring improved livelihoods and income for farmers. Going forward, farmers will have to double the annual yield increase — and we need to reach out to 500 million smallholder farms, or 2 billion people, who produce most of the agricultural output in developing countries.

Women make up 43 percent of developing world farmers. We need targeted programs to help them increase their productivity and earning potential. The protection of land tenure rights and access to finance, including risk management tools, would be key enablers.

Thirty to 40 percent of agricultural produce gets lost between the farm and the consumer. We need to strengthen capacity along the value chain to reduce waste while improving the nutritional value and food safety for consumers to optimize productivity.

Considerable areas of the world are clearly food-deficient. We need to make it easier to transport goods from suppliers and to promote the development of local sourcing, which helps to develop local markets and reduce urban migration. We need trade policies that increase the exchange of sustainable agricultural goods. Reducing trade-distorting support and protection could provide significant opportunities for farmers while expanding consumers’ access to affordable foods.

Resources for food production will become scarce. A sustainable response to global challenges is the acid test for companies everywhere — not just producers but also suppliers and retailers, as well as international organizations, governments, NGOs and citizens.

We all need to work together. Bodies such as the World Economic Forum have an opportunity to really prove their worth. The G-20 can help us implement concrete actions. A hungry world expects nothing less.

Read more about this debate: Michael Gerson: A welcome piece of good economic news

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