Global food prices have been unstable for at least the last five years in spite of the technological innovations in food production over the last 50 years – the innovations that range from the development of seed varieties and chemical inputs to food processing and storage processes.
One of the major weaknesses in the current global food production system is the absence of policy incentives in three key areas in food production - women, dryland productivity and proper land-use accounting.
Women are at the heart of the food production process. They make up more than 40% of the labor force, but only represent between 3 to 20 % of landholders. And yet, studies show that farmers in countries with greater gender equality tend to achieve higher average cereal yields than countries with less equality.
Continuing with gender-blind public policies and societal values that undermine women’s economic and market potential will only exacerbate the situation because the demand for food is expected to increase by 50% by the year 2030.
The world’s drylands – the arid, semi-arid and dry subhumid zones – make up 44% of all cultivated systems. One in every three plants that are under cultivation today originated from these ecosystems and 50% of all livestock is located here. But land degradation in the drylands and elsewhere are undermining global food production, and with it food price stability.
Each year in the drylands, 12 million hectares of land that could produce 20 million tons of grain is lost through desertification and drought alone. Yet, from the Sahel and Horn of Africa to India and China, most of the food price hotspots are also drought and desertification hotspots.
Globally, we are losing 75 billion tons of fertile soil every year while more than 1.5 billion people, a majority of whom are poor, depend on degrading land for food. How can we sustain stability in food production when the land and soil resources that are the backbone of agriculture are eroded year after year?
Food production consumes finite water and land resources. On average, between five and 25 tons of water is used to produce one kilogram of food. Already, 70% of all fresh water resources are used in agriculture. So food trade also involves water trade and the economic cost of food should include the cost or renewing the water resource.
As long as land degradation and water depletion are omitted in food pricing, food insecurity will likely persist due to speculation about the land available to meet the growing food demand. Mainstreaming the costs of land and water renewal in all food producing would increase market stability and enable agricultural producers to take better care of the land.
The successes of small scale food producers are valuable in identifying key policy gaps and solutions. The communities in Kantche district in Burkina Faso, a region prone to drought like the rest of the Sahel are one example. Here, some communities have not only become more resilience to drought, but are also producing surplus grain through farmer-managed natural regeneration practices and agroforestry.
These are land use practices built on a mix of conventional science and indigenous farming techniques that improve land productivity. Their successes show that there are immediate benefits for households and national and global benefits of food security to be reaped from mainstreaming sustainable land management in agricultural practice.
The agreement to go land-degradation neutral, which was reached by world leaders at the June Rio+ 20 Summit is a step in the right direction. It signals a strong desire to change by avoiding the degradation of land in new areas, through efforts to improve the quality and offset the amount of land that is degraded every year. But this intention must be turned into concrete action by setting a timeline and putting in place mechanisms for its achievement.
Food price instability is not a fate. It can be improved through effective policy design targeting women, drylands, and use of water, land and soil. Change will not happen overnight, but with each passing day of inaction, the political, social and economic cost of achieving food security rises.