Leading Scientists Discuss Ways to End ‘Hidden Hunger’
A team of renowned environmental scholars met to discuss the topic of “hidden hunger” at the Twenty-Sixth International Conference for the Unity of the Sciences (ICUS XXVI) in February 2020.
Rodale Institute Chief Operating Officer Andrew Smith, PhD, began the event with an introduction to how modern agriculture produces more food but also contributes to the unintended consequences of stressing the environment and creating a new “hidden hunger.”
His presentation sparked remarks from a distinguished group of discussants that included Ohio State University soil scientist and World Food Prize winner Rattan Lal [see The Earth & I August 2021] and the late Nobel Laureate Mario Molina.
The following are edited excerpts from their discussion, which include updates from recent Rodale Institute trial studies.
Dr. Andrew Smith, Chief Operating Officer, Rodale Institute, USA:
The global population is currently 8 billion and is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050 and to 10.8 billion by 2080. Food production and harvest, as currently practiced, are putting tremendous strain on the Earth’s natural resources, while the health and well-being of all life on Earth depend on these natural resources. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) estimates that 821 million people suffered from chronic malnourishment or hunger in 2017. That is 1 in 9, or approximately 11% of the global human population at the time.
While progress has been made to eradicate hunger over the past fifty years, the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal to cut 1990–1992 hunger levels in half by 2015 fell short. Drastic measures need to be taken immediately in order to meet the current UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of zero hunger by 2030. It is imperative that this is achieved with no additional environmental harm unless such achievement would jeopardize other SDGs.
How We Got Here
The progress made over the past fifty years or more to reduce hunger was mostly due to the adoption of contemporary agricultural production methods sparked by the Green Revolution, starting in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1969, approximately 37% or 961 million people in just the developing world suffered from hunger.
Hunger fell sharply from 2003 to 2017, going from 15.1% of the population to 10.8%, although this percentage has risen since 2015. These improvements were fueled by new crop varieties (mostly cereals), increased use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and investment in irrigation. In the forty years from 1960 to 2000, global cereal output more than doubled, and from 1960 to 2015, global food production tripled.
In the middle of the twentieth century, this new form of chemical-based agriculture became the conventional system adopted by the majority of the world’s farmers and was hailed as a savior that would finally free society from the bondage of hunger. However, it is now recognized and mostly accepted that this form of agriculture has negatively affected the natural world. More than one-third of the Earth’s soils are degraded, limiting their potential to produce food and adequately provide ecosystem services. Loss of soil productivity from agricultural activity results in deforestation and encroachment on marginal lands, exacerbating the loss of biodiversity.
Chemicals applied for agricultural purposes contaminate surface and groundwater sources, jeopardizing fisheries and human heath; hasten the release of greenhouse gases from the soil to the atmosphere; and bio-magnify to the extent that all mammals, including humans, on the planet store these chemicals in their fat tissue, at times at levels detrimental to reproduction and health.
Consider that over 5 billion pounds of active ingredients from persistent chemical pesticides are applied globally each year to control insects, disease, and other pests. The use of synthetic pesticides is again on the rise, as sensible integrated pest management approaches developed in the latter half of the twentieth century have never fully been implemented, while “new technologies” such as genetically modified crops and systemic pesticides have been adopted instead.
A New Type of Hunger
Conventional agriculture also contributes to another form of chronic malnourishment termed “hidden hunger.” Hidden hunger occurs when individual caloric demands are met, but levels of micronutrients, such as iron, selenium, magnesium, vitamin A, and zinc, are too low to maintain proper health. It is estimated that more than half of the world’s population suffers from this form of hunger.
There is a rising obesity epidemic in developed and developing countries, and in the United States half of the population suffers from at least one chronic disease that could be prevented with lifestyle and diet changes.
Hidden hunger occurs when individual caloric demands are met but levels of micro-nutrients such as iron, selenium, magnesium, vitamin A, and zinc are too low to maintain proper health.
Several factors are causing hidden hunger. In developing countries, a greater proportion of the diet consists of high-caloric cereals, while consumption of high-protein pulses (such as beans and lentils) has decreased. As cereals were bred for higher yields, the concentration of vitamins, minerals, and protein declined while starch increased. In addition, the increased use of fertilizers improves yields but results in the dilution of the concentration of nutrients within crops.
More recently, climate change has become another factor in crop nutritional declines.
Macrocosm studies that control carbon dioxide levels of rice fields found that increased atmospheric CO2 levels reduced the concentration of protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins, which could have serious consequences for societies that rely on rice as a staple food.
We can produce enough healthy, nutrient-rich foods to feed the human population while preserving the environment.
The Farming Systems Trial at Rodale Institute, a forty-year side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic grain crop production, has demonstrated that crop yields comparable to the conventional approach can be obtained without the use of synthetic chemicals. This is largely achieved by regenerating soil health through diverse crop rotations, cover crops, green manures, and compost. The result is higher soil carbon levels and increased water infiltration and water-holding capacity that leads to higher yields during periods of drought stress and heavy rainfall.
[Recent Rodale trial-based studies (2022) have compared how tillage reduction affects organic and conventional farming systems. One trial suggests that soil health in organic systems was determined more by diversified crop rotations and sufficient organic inputs than by reducing tillage frequency. It was shown that conventional farming systems, on the other hand, might need help from “other co-adapting soil health practices” to alleviate the surface compaction that can result when reduced tillage is used in conventional systems.
Another recent Rodale study demonstrated how reducing tillage does not affect the “long-term profitability of organic or conventional field crop systems,” which is good news, especially for those concerned with the economic viability of organic farming systems.]
Enough Food, Too Much Waste
We currently produce enough food to feed the world, but it is estimated that one-third of it is lost before it reaches the table or is thrown away, where it can become an environmental pollutant and release greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
We currently produce enough food to feed the world, but it is estimated that one-third of it is lost before it reaches the table or is thrown away, where it can become an environmental pollutant and release greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. In developing countries, as much as 40% of crops can be lost due to pests in the field or poor storage, while in developed countries, 40% of food may be discarded as post-consumer waste.
Dr. Cliff Davidson, Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University, USA:
What about the advantages of being vegetarian in terms of soil preservation and use of Earth’s resources to provide vitamins and essential elements, as well as calories?
Dr. Rattan Lal, Distinguished Professor, Soil Science, Ohio State University, USA [See The Earth & I, August 2021]:
A plant-based diet is the best option. I think it is well established that the nutrients, water, and land area required for animal-based protein are much higher than for plant-based. In the long term, ignoring personal bias, it is important to objectively consider a strategy of feeding eleven billion people with a healthy diet.
The present animal-based diet—not only followed in the Western world but also getting popular in the emerging economies—requires careful consideration. The populations of India and China, with a 15% increase in animal-based diet per year, are transitioning toward an animal-based diet, which may not be healthy for people or the planet. It is thus important for human nutritionists, soil scientists, agronomists, plant physiologists, and so on to critically discuss this issue.
I very much support the Meatless Monday movement. However, it may not be enough. An even bigger cut may be needed in consuming animal-based food products. Indeed, it is possible to live without meat.
Hon. Danielle Nierenberg, Co-founder and President, Food Tank, USA [see The Earth & I April 2023]:
I could not agree more, but I also think that we give meat a bad rap. With the regenerative agriculture movement taking a big hold across the US and the world, I think we need to remember that to improve soil quality and the health of the environment, we need animals in a lot of ways. They provide a natural source of fertilizer that does not come out of a bag, and they can be part of a healthy food system.
What I do think we need to reduce is the amount of meat we eat. Dr. Lal mentioned Meatless Mondays, and there are initiatives all over the world that encourage people to eat less meat or no meat on certain days, but I think we need to refine our meat sources and select meat that comes from different, more sustainable sources that do not have a big impact on the environment. I think industrialized farming operations contribute to all sorts of public health effects and have taken the dignity out of animal farming. We need to bring that dignity back.
Lal: We should communicate with children right from kindergarten onward: where is food produced, how is it produced, how is it consumed, how food should be respected as a gift from nature, that it should not be taken for granted.
We also need to educate the engineers who design the fertilizers and the salespeople who sell the produce.
“We should communicate with children right from kindergarten onward: where is food produced, how is it produced, how is it consumed, how food should be respected as a gift from nature, that it should not be taken for granted.”
Our knowledge as scientists needs to be translated into action. Positive trends are already there, and we scientists need to work with policymakers, to seize the moment and work with them, to be at their disposal. There will always be policymakers who resist taking action, but that is a transient situation; nothing is permanent, it will change. We need to have patience, wait for the right time, and then seize the moment when an opportunity arises.
Nierenberg: We also need science to connect to farmers themselves and break down the silos that separate all the communities that need to be involved. One example is that in sub-Saharan Africa, extension services have declined dramatically and farmers now get their information about fertilizers from salespersons.
There are rights that are universal and the human right to food is one of them. I think we need to keep reinforcing that right because it is not being followed by countries. The lack of accessibility is crucial. We are always talking about how poor people should eat better, they should eat healthier food. But if they do not have access to those foods and cannot afford them, they are never going to get out of this cycle of poverty and hunger and obesity.
Lal: I fully agree. Another point is urbanization. We now have twenty-eight megacities of over 10 million population with Lagos, Nigeria predicted to be the world’s largest city with 93 million people by 2100. A megacity of 10 million people needs 6,000 tons of food per day. We also need to recycle the nutrients coming into a city to produce food within the city limits. Urban farming, home gardening, even growing a couple of tomato plants in a pot is something small that can be done.
My hope is that perhaps 20% of the food consumed within a city is grown within the city by the consumers themselves. Not everyone can grow their food in a city, but that is the track we have to take. We also have to learn how to collect solid and liquid human waste separately and understand how to use them in a hygienic way to recycle the nutrients.
Dr. Mario Molina, Distinguished Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California, San Diego, USA:
There are certain agricultural practices in countries, such as the US and Brazil, where agriculture is used to produce fuel, not food. This Is subsidized by the government in the US to use corn to produce ethanol. In Brazil alcohol is produced using sugarcane.
Already in 2019 it became very clear that there are now technologies that are very competitive, cheap enough so that you can produce this fuel, namely ethanol and possibly fuel for airplanes, from agricultural waste.
It does not make any sense to keep using agriculture to produce fuels instead of food. Many countries have been trying to use agricultural waste to produce fuel, but it was too expensive—the first treatment, in particular, had to use a lot of sulfuric acid.
Now there are new technologies, among them those with electron bombardment and so on, but they are already proven to be cheap so that should dismantle the government subsidies for the use of agriculture for fuel. That does not make sense to me.
Lal: Nature has no waste. Soil becomes poor because the so-called “waste” from a crop—which is food for soil-friendly organisms—is taken away. You can convert that waste to energy or convert it into humus (compost) and return it to the soil as an amendment rather than depending entirely on chemical fertilizers.
There is no justification to take land out of food production and into fuel production. Food is the most basic right. My philosophy is to use grain for people and residues for the soil. Otherwise, the soil will rebel—and it has rebelled, when it is so degraded that ecosystem services are severely jeopardized.
Nierenberg: We often think of farmers as just food producers, but they are businesswomen and businessmen who need to make money, and if we can make sure that they are making money in an environmentally, socially, and economically responsible way, then we are going to do a lot to change the food system.