How much food do we grow?
According to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), the world already produces enough food to feed everybody and to provide them with the requisite nutrition to live a healthy life. In 1996 it was estimated that the world was producing enough food to provide every woman, man and child with nutrition of 2,700 kcal per day, about 600 more than what is accepted as the minimum necessary for a healthy life.
The amount of food we produce has increased, making worldwide hunger all the more surprising. According to Oxfam (Canada), the world produces 17% more food per person today than 30 years ago. Not only are we producing more food, but we are doing it on less land than we used to. Significant increases in crop yields, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), have resulted from our advances in agricultural technology. For example, in 1976, 1.9 million metric tons of grain was produced in the US for every 579.1 hectares of land. In 2004, we were growing 3.1 million metric tons of grain from only 517.9 hectares. The number of maize plants that we grow per hectare has risen from approximately 40,000 to 90,000 over the last 50 years. But crop yields cannot improve without bound. There will come a point when plants can no longer be moved any closer to each other, stalk upon stalk.
Although the global population has risen it is not true that it is the cause of global hunger. The problem is not one of overpopulation. Families have been getting smaller for decades, and this goes for developing countries, too. From 1970 to 2010 the world’s population increased by 80%, but from 2010 to 2015 it is so far looking like it will grow by only 30%. People are having fewer children today than they did in the times of our grandparents.
It is true that the global crop yield improvements from 1970 to 2010 of 150%, cannot be sustained over the next 40 years to 2050 and that improvements are likely to top out at 70% of today’s crop yields. Evidence of this can bee seen in the slowing of growth of crop yields from 3% for wheat crops year-on-year in the 1960’s to today’s 1%. So, whilst we have our work cut out for us as the world’s population rises and crop yields grow more slowly, we still have enough food in the world to feed ourselves.
We waste, lose and divert more than half of the food we produce. According to the Stockholm International Water Institute in 2008, we produce around 4,600 kcal per capita per day of food globally. We lose about 500 kcal during harvest and storage, we divert about 1700 kcal to animal feed (and add back about 500 kcal from those raised animals), and finally lose an astounding 800 kcal to waste in distribution and within the household, leaving some 2000+ kcal for consumption.
Hunger today is largely about a problem with distribution of and access to food. In some cases people are hungry because they cannot afford to buy what they need or don’t own sufficient land to grow what they need. Climate change is pushing some of the world’s poorest to the very limits of what subsistence farming can support. Further damage from climate change is likely to reduce crop yields by a factor of a third in some parts of the world, but we should still have enough food, just not in the locations it is needed the most.
Hunger because of an inability to access food is not new. Armartya Sen, an Indian economist, argued in his 1981 essay “Poverty and Famines”, that the 1943 Bengal famine was not due to a fall in crop yields. He highlighted that food was still being exported from the state despite the starvation and death of almost 3m people, and argued that other economic factors are the cause of famine.
Distribution is a difficult problem to solve. Food is not always grown or produced exactly where it is needed and the cost of transport and storage adds to the cost of production making it less affordable.
Movements like the “eat local” movement extol the health, environmental and financial virtues of eating food grown closer to where it is consumed. Eating foods ‘in season’ implies that food has not been transported from a location far away or stored for a long period of time since harvesting. For example, strawberries made available in New South Wales in June (the Australian winter) has likely been transported from Queensland or Western Australia and comes with a higher financial, environmental and nutritional cost, than strawberries available in December in the same place.
Members of the same movement argue that domestic and international trade policy needs examining when it promotes the export of Australian oranges to the United States and oranges grown in California to be exported to Australia. In the case of Danish sugar cookies exported to the United States and American sugar cookies exported to Denmark, wouldn’t it make more sense to swap recipes, is what they argue.
Food distribution to developing countries can be more damagaing to domestic food production because of the distorting market effects cheap food imports can have. Food products raised by developed country farming techniques, with genetically-engineered drought- and pest-resistant seeds, and delivered by efficient and optimised logistics networks; create cost structures upon which domestic farmers in developing countries simply cannot compete.
In the first half of the 19th century seeds were overwhelmingly in the hands of farmers and public-sector plant breeders, according to GMWatch.org. Today, over 50% of the world’s supply of seeds are supplied by just three companies: Monsanto (US), Dupont (Pioneer, US) and Syngenta (Switzerland). The seeds are the product of dazzling feats of genetic engineering and are vigorously protected. The top ten seed producers now own more than 75% of all seed genomes.
“Global public investment in nanotechnology research has exceeded $50 billion since 2000, with more than 60 countries now having national nanotechnology initiatives (ETC Group, 2010). The leading global investors and developers of synthetic biology products include 6 of the 10 largest chemical companies, 6 of the 10 largest energy companies, 6 of the 10 largest grain traders and the world’s 7 largest pharmaceutical companies (ETC Group, 2012). Intellectual property ensures monopoly control over processes and products and allows an oligopoly to rule over all industrial sectors considered essential to life.”
Market-distorting trade policy, the genetic and synthetic biology ‘technology divide’, and food storage and distribution are just three of the factors causing world hunger today.
Trade policy should first make sense: consumers need to demand food that is grown “locally” and those that believe in free market principles would agree that the market will then provide. Cheaper food is not always better food, particularly not when “cheaper” is calculated by leaving out a whole stack of cost factors that a full account would include (nutritional value, environmental footprint, income foregone by domestic farmers, etc.) Could it be that a tomato we buy today is less than the tomato our parents and grandparents could have consumed and should we demand that we return to the tomato of yesteryear and pay for that? If we as consumers demand cheap anbd don’t keep our eye on the ball of what we get for the money, perhaps we are being sold “less than” a real tomato?
The genetic technology divide can only be solved through greater public financing of genetic research and markets that value the growing of food at smaller local community scales — this has to turn from a fragmented and fringe argument to a public mainstream outcry. Public debate on genetically modified organisms has yet not reached a scale that can influence market makers to change their ways.
As the University of Aston professor, David Collingridge, pointed out in 1980 in his book “The Social Control of Technology”, the time to assess the social value of technology is not when it is widespread but when it is nascent. Right now, the assessment of the value of particular technologies in our world should take place with public funding, not when the market is dependant on and used to the presence of the technology to be assessed. Collingridge astutely asserted that: “When change is easy, the need for it cannot be foreseen; when the need for change is apparent, change has become expensive, difficult and time consuming.”
1. Episode 3: Food: There’s lots of it | Overpopulation is a myth, available at
2. There is enough food to feed the world, available at http://www.oxfam.ca/there-enough-food-feed-world.
3. 2015 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics by WHES, available at
4. How much is enough?, accessed: Friday, February 12 2016 @ 8:07 PM, available athttp://www.economist.com/node/18200702.
5. Saving Water: From Field to Fork Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain (2008),Stockholm International Water Institute, accessed Friday, February 12 2016 @ 6:44 PM, available athttp://www.siwi.org/documents/Resources/Papers/Paper_13_Field_to_Fork.pdf
6. The World’s Top 10 Seed Companies: Who Owns Nature?, accessed: Friday, February 12 2016 @ 8:07 PM, available at: http://www.gmwatch.org/gm-firms/10558-the-worlds-top-ten-seed-companies-who-owns-nature.
7. Addressing the “Technology Divides”: Critical Issues in Technology and SDGs, accessed: Friday, February 12 2016 @ 8:15 PM, available athttps://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/4673dano.pdf