In 2014 the world economy stalled and for the first time the rapid pace of globalization slowed.
The consequences were felt immediately in a measurable drop in GDP and in food insecurity. Undernourishment rose in 2015 and is now at levels not seen since 2010.
Economists were quick to blame the slippage in globalized trade on protectionism. The reality is that we have a broken universal infrastructure that became bogged and so the nationalist agenda — that being to look for solutions within one’s own borders — has been reborn.
In Canada, food insecurity rose from 7.6 per cent in 2015 to nearly 15 per cent (one in seven persons) by early 2020. We are not alone. In other developed export-dependent nations, such as Australia, food insecurity rose from five per cent in 2004 to 30 per cent in 2019. In areas of political instability such as Argentina, food insecurity doubled between 2014 and 2019 (even though farmers grow enough food to supply 2,000 calories per day to each person).
It is not that there is a shortage of food.
In fact there is more than enough grown to feed every person on Earth the required calories.
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It is that folks cannot afford it, it is unavailable or degraded. The post-harvest system is broken. For example, a load of Canadian peas in containers may arrive in India by ship only to be unloaded and re-bagged by hand as there is not the infrastructure in place to handle the volume. This creates delays and wastage.
Currently because of infrastructure incapacity to move, store or protect food, we lose 40 to 50 per cent of global fruit and vegetables, 20 per cent of meats and oils, 30 per cent of cereals and 35 per cent of fish (the world’s largest protein source). Keeping that food at home and adding value to it so it is no longer in a state of complete vulnerability is an attractive option. But only if there is infrastructure to support this as well as enabling municipal and federal policy and clarity in regulations (all of which need attention and refining).
In travelling around the world, I repeatedly witnessed failure in food systems — cans of milk sitting in the sun on the side of the road in Asia waiting for pickup and sacks of vegetables and fruits likewise sitting in the sun in South America, waiting for a truck. When storage is absent such as is the case in some areas of Africa, 70 per cent of the harvest is lost to spoilage, theft and rodents.
In Canada, where storage is closer to ideal and rodents less likely to destroy the harvested crop, the system still needs refining. Grain may sit in bins for an extended period of time while farmers wait for rail cars to transport that grain to port. Food animals may be kept on feed too long or unharvested vegetables left to rot. Product that is exported is always dependent on the receiving country being able to employ storage as well as processes and protocols for distribution. This may or may not be available. There is a lot of room for waste within this handling of raw commodity.
The lack of digitization in all the steps in global trade continues to handicap the infrastructure (which is so outdated the estimate to fix the problem is US$57 trillion). No one country or company is lining up to take that task on with the exception of China, which continues to aggressively create arteries to move food and resources worldwide.
The recent historical centralization of trade and the expansion of trade routes were supposed to produce a robust global economy. This failed.
Canadian farmers still compete in this non-digitized, highly competitive space that does not identify product through the system; while they literally wait for their ship to come in. For rural communities in Canada, this deeply affects their local economies and their ability to access and store commodities and food; which all contributes to food waste and insecurity.
The solutions are complex but there are rural wins by starting with community-based business plans that recognize the value in value adding to commodities with the latest technology, and in connecting digitally to the buyer be they domestic or international.
Local municipalities are on track when they invest in basic infrastructure, advanced technology and offer enabling regulations so that agri-food companies can begin, grow and prosper — attracting further infrastructure investment and employment.
It is estimated that a one per cent drop in GDP growth equates to a reduction in food supply by 0.06 per cent. Opportunity abounds especially in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan where the net provincial debt to GDP is half of that in the eastern and Atlantic Canada provinces. Capital will flow when regional infrastructure is in place.
The globalized economy may have stalled in providing food security for all, but the rural community can deliver on a robust local economy and contribute to the reduction in food waste and food insecurity.