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Food Security and Staple Crops

In 1996, the World Food Summit defined food security as a condition ‘when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.’

Current world food security depends on a relatively small number of plants, called staple crops (IAEA, 2012). Staple crops are the foundation of daily nutrition for billions of people. Based on FAO research of more than 50,000 edible plant species, three main groups satisfy two thirds of the world’s food energy intake. They are rice, maize, and wheat. Both as a source of nutrition and income, these three grains are staple foods for more than five billion people.

Staple crops constitute the primary source of calories for a large percentage of the global population. Once processed and prepared, these crops form the basis of countless meals worldwide. Wheat, for instance, is ground into flour for bread, pasta, and various baked goods. Maize is processed into cornmeal for tortillas and porridge. Rice represents the centrepiece of Asian and African recipes, and is a staple food for over half of the world’s population, especially peoples based in Asia.

In addition to rice, maize, and wheat, other staple crops are potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, and barley.

The Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), places China and India as the world leaders in rice production, with 147,691 million tons and 125,038 million tons respectively. At the same time, they also lead rice consumption statistics: China with 153,683 million tons, India with 109,166 million tons.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2022, China (2.4 billion tons), India (1.8 billion tons) and the USA (1.2 billion tons) are world leaders in wheat production. lists the USA as the world leader in maize production, with 354.19 million tons, followed by China (274 million tons) and Brazil (136 million tons).

Obviously, most populous countries are also leaders in staple crops production.

Regrettably, the latest assessments on food security are not very encouraging. The World Bank’s latest update (2023) informs that ‘between 691 million and 783 million people were hungry globally in 2022, effectively erasing progress made since 2015. In addition, food insecurity rose from 25.3% in 2019 to 29.6% in 2022, with severe food insecurity affecting 11.3% of the global population.’

Leaving aside economic uncertainty, inflation and trade bans or other sanctions, hunger and poverty can rise dramatically if staple crops are threatened by drought, pests, or nutrient-poor soils. Technology can help. Sensor-based applications, remote monitoring, improved connectivity, and assisted farm management may contribute to identifying climate and environmental threats and take appropriate actions before issues arise, rather than deal with their consequences.

As more mouths to feed (due to the constant growth in world’s population) strain agricultural resources, the reliability and versatility of staple crops become increasingly vital. Staple crops are not just a food option; they are a necessity in regions with limited access to alternative food sources.

Many staple crops are hardy and adaptable to a range of environmental conditions, making them ideal for addressing food security challenges exacerbated by climate change. Research and effort to test and use drought-resistant varieties of maize and heat-tolerant rice strains are ongoing, and aim to enhance the resilience of those crops to create a sustainable future.

Continuous investment in research, innovation, and responsible agricultural practices that support the production and supply of staple crops is essential. Recognising the value of these humble yet indispensable crops is key to nourishing the world’s population and preparing a healthier, sustainable, and more equitable future for all.

-Marina Novokhatska

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