Skipping Seconds


By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of Danumurthi Mahendra.

The term “non-renewable resources” usually brings a number of things to mind: our limited supply of fossil fuels, our finite amount of Earth minerals and nuclear fuel, and of course, the need for energy alternatives.

What doesn’t immediately come to mind however, is food. After all, as long as there is land, water, and sun, the world should have food right? Well, not exactly. At the rapid pace in which the population is increasing, and the slow rate at which food systems around the world are advancing, the world cannot realistically meet the food demand of the near future.

Lately, the talk of chocolate becoming a higher priced luxury item–as opposed to the kind of commonplace treat we can buy in mass at Costco–is making its rounds in the media. Newscasters treat the topic with a level of concern and seriousness usually exhibited in stories about pandemics and natural disasters. While a world without chocolate may resemble a horrid childhood nightmare, the beloved dessert’s production decrease is but one of many food shortages occurring today–the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Like many other crops dealing with wavering yields, issues with the production of chocolate begin at the farming site. Dry weather in West Africa (especially in the Ivory Coast and Ghana where more than 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced) has greatly decreased production. New cocoa trees take at least three years to be productive, so the region has found it hard to keep up.

Climate changes also affect Arabica coffee plants in Brazil, where most of the world’s coffee originates. In Jan 2014, the worst drought in decades destroyed crop yields. Over 140 cities had to ration water, and the issue increased the price of coffee by more than 50 percent.

Like climate change, the spread of disease in developing countries also comes at the expense of the local farmers. According to the international humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger USA, the three countries hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak–Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone–suffer a shortage of manpower for food production as well as a major spike in food costs.

In Sierra Leone, 40 percent of farmers abandon their crops for places that are perceived to be safer. Also in that country, prices recently rose as much as 30 to 40 percent because rice and other staples became much more expensive. Unfortunately, even if small-scale farmers are lucky enough not to be stricken with environmental woes or disease, there is still a chance they won’t yield successful crops. Such small-scale farmers do not have access to many of the newer technologies developed and utilized by larger-scale farms which protect crops against fungal diseases and pests.

Crops that survive the initial stage of production begin their journey to post-harvest centers, a process that is also riddled with obstacles. For one, many developing countries experience a lack of road systems, and is not uncommon for the first available road to be miles away. Additionally, the modes of transportation that farmers use often do not have the proper refrigeration systems needed for the time-consuming post-harvest trips, resulting in the destruction of their goods before they even reach their destination.

If harvested crops do not reach their destination, receiving communities’ food insecurity rises, which often leaves them resorting to high-caloric, starchy provisions that are admittedly filling, but do not provide the vitamins and minerals necessary in a healthy diet. Further, even the crops that do reach the shelves of supermarkets and farmer’s markets do not always necessarily end up on the table. An obsession with perfect-looking, blemish-free fruits and vegetables has overtaken many developed countries, leading to a large increase in food waste often because people are not satisfied with the appearance of their produce.

Not all hope is lost though. Fred Davies, a Regents Professor of Horticulture at Texas A&M University and senior science advisor of the United States Agency of International Development, spoke with BTR about some of the programs and initiatives being put into effect to tackle these issues.

“One of the real opportunities we have right now in the world is technology and the ability to use it well,” Davies shares. “Making small-scale horticultural farmers powerful and sustainable needs more emphasis in our system.”

For an existing example, Davies cites the Indian company Digital Green, which “allows farmers in India–where there are all these different languages–to become rock stars by having them record what they’re doing with cheap and affordable video equipment and distributing that to other farmers so that everyone gets the latest information.”

As Davies explains, horticultural crops represent 50 percent of the farm-gate value of all crops produced in the US. However, unlike cotton, corn, rice, and other staple crops, horticultural ones receive little government subsidization. Initiatives like Digital Green, as well as Shamba Shape Up (a reality TV show in Kenya about small-scale horticultural farmers) inspires and teaches those in developing countries who are determined to create a more sustainable system.

“I don’t think that chocolate is a frivolous product,” Davies tells BTR. “Growing [chocolate] brings money and resources to that farmer family and allows them to buy other products. If they make the right choices, all of [these agrarian factors are] interconnected. They may sell chocolate, but they use the money for more nutritious crops.”

Davies believes that agricultural productivity, food security, food safety, the environment, nutrition, and obesity are all interconnected.

He expands that there are numerous “different niches,” for “large and small farmers,” causing “tremendous opportunities in urban environments [for] teaching people how to grow and sell their own products.”

The solution to solving food shortage problems is multifaceted and synergetic.

“[It’s] not just one system,” he reasons. “Teaching people about better nutrition will get people to put importance on the right crops and after that, things fall into place.”