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Manchester, Lancashire, United Kingdom
We are a team of five cross-disciplinary students from the University of Manchester taking part in the Thought For Food Challenge. For more information, please see our About Us page. It's just down there on the right.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Water, water everywhere?

As a child growing up in the UK, I'd have laughed at you for telling me off for "wasting water."  I'd have pointed to the clouds forming in the sky and said "but it'll rain and fill the reservoirs back up again," or something along those lines.  I might then have suggested that the sea had plenty of water, and that surely we could never run out?!

Of course, I know better now - and I also appreciate that not all people have access to safe, chlorinated drinking water and instead have to battle with parasites,  such as the Guinea worm, while 90% of all infectious diseases worldwide are caused by unsafe drinking water.  In fact, 50% of all the hospital beds in the world are taken up by those suffering due to poor drinking water.  4 billion people per year suffer diarrhoea and 2.2 million of them die.  Furthermore, one child under the age of 5 dies every fifteen seconds due to water-related diseases.

This burden can only reduce agricultural productivity, as parasites such as Guinea worm can render people immobile and unable to tend to crops, or herd animals.  Furthermore, the amount of labour time that is reduced due to water-related illnesses, or even simply transporting water over long distances, severly reduces labour hours in developing countries.  This reduction in labour hours leads to a reduction in production, which maintains poverty in developing countries - while also increasing hunger.  Water, poverty and hunger are all heavily interlinked - and all three must be tackled to reduce malnutrition and suffering in the poorest areas on Earth.

The above video highlights several stark facts about the water crisis we face.  The most harrowing of these is the fact that fossil aquifers, which supply water to hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East, are depleting - never to refill.  "In Gaza, overpumping is reducing the hydrological pressure, which is letting the sea water in, and the wells are producing water that is less and less potable. Already Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Cyprus, Malta, and the Arabian Peninsula are at the point where all surface and ground freshwater resources are fully used. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt will be in the same position within a decade."  This blog also suggests that, in the Middle East, water might cost as much per barrel as oil.

A quick look at the world hunger map made me wince when I realised that many of the most food-secure countries in the world are found in North Africa and the Middle East.

What happens when none of these countries has enough ground-water to irrigate their fields?  Where will these countries obtain their food?  Considering an increasing amount of arable land is being dedicated to biofuels in other countries, will these produce enough to export to North Africa?  Furthermore, civil wars and revolutions have broken out accross the region - most notably in Libya, but also in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria and more.  How are these nations to feed their people in 2015, 2020, 2025 or 2030, nevermind 2050?

The question is...  how are we to feed an ever-expanding population when water security is only set to decrease worldwide?  Farmland from desert can only happen for so long...  and our days exploiting our freshwater resources are numbered.  If we are to solve the global food crisis, we first must tackle the global water crisis - which seems an almost insurmountable task unless governments start large scale desalination projects now.  I again point to the seawater greenhouse project, however, as hope for the future.


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

How to feed 9 billion?

There are 925 million hungry people on Earth and by 2050 the world population is expected to increase to 9 billion, while most of the extra 2 billion people will be born in China, India and Indonesia, where a significant proportion of the world's hungry people live.  65% of the world's hungry live in South Asia, while almost all of them live in developing countries.  If we are to feed an extra 2 billion by 2050 then we must combat water and energy shortages, as well as battling the effects of global climate change.  It is possible that an increase in carbon dioxide could cause yields of crops, such as rice, to increase (see the video below).  However, carbion dioxide is not the sole cause of climate change and gases such as methane can have a relatively stronger and longer lasting effect on temperature increase, which would nulify the positive effects of increased carbion dioxide.  Furthermore, climate change is also causing natural disasters and famines around the world today.

If we are to sustain this increase in population, then despite the fact that we currently produce enough food to feed 12 billion (but throw most of it away), we will have to increase food production.  What would be the best way to go forward?  Some argue that organic farming is the best solution to the food crisis, with smallholder farmers growing food to be consumed locally in rural communities.  Organic farming couldn't sustain a city such as Mumbai, however, which is home to millions of people living in one of the most densely populated areas in the world.  GM crops have been shown to increase wealth in certain areas, which is likely to reduce hunger - as well as the increased yields that can also be produced.  In reality, it will require a combination of all of the available forms of agriculture in order to sustain a rapidly expanding population.  It is regrettable that many aquifers - which irrigate most, if not all, of the crops of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations - are depleting, never to refill.  However, it is possible that large scale desalination could help to irrigate crops in these areas - as the Seawater Greenhouse Project aims to achieve.

The above video shows an opinion opposed to organic food production, which may be inefficient compared with more technical agricultural practises.  However, staff and customers of the locally-sourced organic food shop Unicorn, in Chorlton, Manchester, explain how organic food production can be sustainable.

Of course...  not all people in the world are hungry.  70 million people in India are overweight, yet 47% of India's children are stunted or wasting.  Guatemala is the tenth fattest country in the world, yet malnourishment levels are around 20%.  How can it be that both gluttony and hunger can occur on such a large scale in developing countries?  Surely the overweight could spare some food, or waste less, in order that the hungry could be properly nourished...  The video below highlights the gluttony of "Western" diets, where consumers often eat far more food than is necessary, while this food is also low in nutrients.  In some developing nations fast food is the cheap and easy to get hold of - which may be one reason why malnourishment is so high in Central and South America.

So, what is there to be done about world hunger?  Our next challenge will be to brainstorm, starting Thursday...  we'll keep you posted on our ideas - and we welcome comments and suggestions!  What would YOU do to combat global hunger?


Saturday, 9 April 2011

Waste not want not.... an old adage with increasing relevance

Why do we waste up to 50% of our food?  Why is it that we can't redistribute this waste to the hungry?  Over the last two weeks we've been searching Manchester high and low, looking in bins and eating the contents.  We've found a plethora of entirely edible items - from potatoes, carrots, oranges, and tomatoes to pork pies, fresh eggs and fish.  As students we're all feeling the pinch as the recession threatens to deepen, which makes free egg butties feel even more satisfying!  The video below shows the contents of just one of the bins that we've searched.  After two minutes of searching we found enough food to make several stews, as well as dessert to go with them!

Obviously, we are throwing away vast quantities of food that could be put to much better use.  Considering there are 925 million hungry people on Earth, it seems abhorrent that there is perfectly decent food being thrown away on such a large scale.  However, what is there to be done about tackling food waste?  The video below gives the opinions of some Plant Science students from the University of Manchester...

This link is to a blog dedicated to asking questions about food waste...  this will surely inspire some food for thought!  The author, Jonathan Bloom, has written a book entitled "American Wasteland" in which he describes how Americans throw away almost half of their food...


Finally...  why do you think we waste so much food?  What could be done with the waste that we produce?  Couldn't we plant spuds rather than throwing them away?  Another important question to ask yourself is...

Would you eat this banana?