Food Security

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Between 2007 and 2010, the number of people around the world without regular access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food increased 20 per cent to over one billion. That’s one person for every seven on this planet.

Who is hungry and why

Poverty is the main culprit: most of these people earn less than US $2 a day. However, urban slums with little access to agricultural areas, environmental degradation, loss of land due to urbanization, and salinization, drought, floods and the other effects of climate change also play their part.

Food security hit the media in a big way in 2007-08 when the price of fuel and food spiked. Notably, realizing that biofuels paid more than food crops, farmers turned their corn over for ethanol. The price of rice increased 300 per cent. Riots broke out all over the world as people saw the price of food outstrip their incomes. The global recession added fuel to the fire.

Canada is not exempt. Pockets of food insecurity exist in both urban cores and remote locations.

What is McGill doing to help?

Chandra Madramootoo, Dean of McGill’s Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, was alarmed by the crisis and its exponential growth. In 2008, he was a driving force behind the creation of an annual international conference to discuss long- and short-term solutions. At the 2010 conference, McGill officially launched the Institute of Global Food Security to analyze the policy and research challenges associated with food production and access.

Through the Institute, McGill is taking a multi-pronged approach to research projects and training that require collaboration from experts in almost every discipline imaginable.

The nascent research program includes a wide range of projects that address challenges the world’s poor face every day: finding new drought-resistant and salt-tolerant crops and improving animal management systems; tracking the trade-off between producing biofuels vs. food; researching climate adaptation measures; developing programs and policies to encourage rural entrepreneurship and microfinancing; finding ways to fortify native diets; and devising ways to protect food from hazards throughout the production, processing and distribution chain.

The training program is designed to bring desperately needed people power and multidisciplinary knowledge to the field.

“Right now, we don’t have the human resources required to solve problems at the policy, project or even farm level,” says Madramootoo.

The Institute is offering an undergraduate level major in International Agriculture and Food Systems and a specialization in Agriculture and Food Systems to prepare students for project management or policy development. Students in the program have opportunities for internships to gain practical, hands-on knowledge of what is needed in the field. The Institute is also offering short intensive courses, developed in collaboration with universities around the world, to professionals from developing countries.

McGill’s work in the area of food security is led by experts such as Alan Watson and Don Smith in Plant Science, Gail Chmura in Geography, Tim Johns in Dietetics and Human Nutrition, Inteaz Alli in Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry, Vijaya Raghavan in Bioresource Engineering and Vikram Bhatt in Architecture, working with such unique resources as the Brace Centre for Water Resources Management, the Institute for the Study of International Development, the Global Environmental and Climate Change Centre, the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy, the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law and the Minimum Cost Housing Group, whose interests include urban agriculture.

Can we really solve the problem?

In the 1970s, experts were uneasy about the Earth’s ability to feed an anticipated five billion people. But thanks to better production techniques, it does, in spite of the fact that 30 to 40 per cent of global production is lost through disease, infestations, mould, improper storage and drying, and general wastage. Today, the fear is that the Earth cannot feed the ten billion people expected to live on the planet by 2050.

Madramootoo is hopeful, though he acknowledges that answers will take time to develop. McGill’s contributions to teaching and research on food security “will be the hub of a widespread network of knowledge and expertise that will directly contribute to sustainable food production and to an affordable worldwide supply of safe, nutritious food,” he says.