This year, hardly a week seems to have gone by without the release of another report on global food systems and food security. Each has a different focus: earlier in May I reported on an FAO report highlighting the problem of food waste, while earlier in the year we published blog articles on reports arguing for agricultural innovation and proposing changes to the global food system. Today's report, from the UK-based development charity Oxfam, has as its main focus rising food prices, and the impacts of climate change and the structure of agricultural production and trade. But all the reports share one common theme: that unless there is radical reform of global food systems, then the pressures of rising populations and prices will lead to more of the world's population going hungry.
According to Oxfam, by 2030 the average cost of key crops could increase by between 120% and 180%. This is the acceleration of a trend which has already seen food prices double in the last 20 years. And Oxfam predicts that half of the projected increase will be caused by climate change.
In its report, Growing a Better Future, Oxfam says predictions suggest the world's population will reach 9bn by 2050, and that the demand for food will climb by 70%. Yet the average growth rate in agricultural yields has almost halved since 1990, and is expected to decrease further in the coming decade.
According to the charity's research, the world's poorest people now spend up to 80% of their incomes on food – with those in the Philippines spending proportionately four times more than those in the UK, for instance – and more people will be pushed into hunger as food prices climb.
"The food system must be overhauled if we are to overcome the increasingly pressing challenges of climate change, spiralling food prices and the scarcity of land, water and energy," said Barbara Stocking, Oxfam's chief executive.
The report is critical of a number of governments, and of the impact agribusiness and commodity trading has on food systems and food prices. Among the targets of criticism is U.S. and EU policies which mean that agricultural land is used for biofuels. It says that US policy, for example, ensures that 15 per cent of the world's corn is used to make fuel, even at times of severe food crisis. And under EU targets, 10 per cent of transport fuel will be covered by biofuels by 2020.
Emerging economies aren't immune from criticism either. Oxfam says that the number of hungry people in India has increased by 65 million – more than the population of France – between 1990 and 2005 because economic development excluded the rural poor, and welfare programmes failed to reach them. During the same period, India doubled the size of its economy, but one in four of the world's hungry people now live in India.
Oxfam believes one way to tame food price inflation is to limit speculation in agricultural commodity futures markets. It also opposed support for using food as a feedstock for biofuels.
"Financial speculation must be regulated, and support dismantled for biofuels that displace food," it said.
Stocking said she favored the introduction by regulators of position limits in agricultural commodities futures trading, noting that financial speculation aggravated price volatility.
The report said: "The vast imbalance in public investment in agriculture must be righted, redirecting the billions now being ploughed into unsustainable industrial farming in rich countries toward meeting the needs of small-scale food producers in developing countries."
Not everyone agrees that part of the answer is to invest more in smallholder farmers. The BBC reports on a radio debate between Oxfam's Barbara Stocking and Nicola Horlick, a leading British investment fund manager who has invested in farmland in Brazil.
Ms Horlick said large mechanised farms still provided some job opportunities for local workers and created spin-off industries.
"You cannot reply on a whole lot of smallholders to feed the world – it's not going to work," she said.
But what investment in smallholder farmers can do is increase the incomes of the rural poor in some of the world's most poverty-stricken countries, and by promoting more sustainable local food production reduce the dependence of poor countries on global markets and food aid. So among the succession of global reports, it is heartening to hear of those initiatives that do aim to work at local levels to help agricultural production and rural livelihoods.
CABI's own Plantwise initiative is playing its part, with the rollout of plant clinics directly serving small farmers to help them stem crop losses from pests and diseases. Another initiative is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization started by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan devoted to boosting food security in Africa by facilitating sustainable growth on smallholder farms and the top recipient of Gates foundation agriculture funding. Agra seeks to "double the incomes of 20 million smallholder farmers by 2020, reduce food insecurity by 50% in at least 20 countries, and put at least 15 countries on track to attain and sustain an African green revolution that supports smallholder farmers, protects the environment and helps farmers adapt to climate change", says Sir Gordon Conway in a blog in the Guardian today. Last week Agra signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the USDA on efforts to promote seed development and soil enhancement, reduce crop loss, manage water resources, improve data collection, develop farmer training programs, create market information systems, and improve human capacity and food-related infrastructure in Africa.
Oxfam started life in 1942 as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. Nearly 70 years on, chronic hunger is still a problem affecting around a billion people, as highlighted not only in it's own report, but in some of the others we have featured on this blog this year. But the reports also reflect a widespread recognition of the problems, and there are signs that both governments and private donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are making agriculture and food a greater priority once more. As Sir Gordon's blog says on Agra, we can't afford to fail.