How much is enough?

1 06 2011

Last week I talked about the fears associated with feeding a world population of 7 billion – let alone 9 billion – and mentioned that there are those who see organic agriculture as a niche market, unable to provide the calories needed for those 9 billion.  The topic is extraordinarily complex, and we can only begin to review various components that figure significantly in the equation.  For those interested, I highly recommend the report published by The Government Office for Science (GO-Science), London, entitled “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”.  The executive summary can be downloaded here.

To begin our exploration, let’s figure out how much food we’re talking about.  How much is enough?

The answer may surprise you.

Today, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)[1],   the world is producing enough food to provide every man, woman and child with 2,700 calories a day, several hundred more than most adults are thought to need (which is around 2,100 a day).  Indeed, Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, stated on the Atlantic Food Channel that in 2008, globally, we grew enough food to feed over 11 billion people.  We grew 4,000 calories per day per person—roughly twice what people need to eat.[2]  Allowing for all the food that could be eaten but is turned into biofuels, and the staggering amounts wasted on the way, farmers are already producing much more than is required (to feed everyone in the world).  If there is a food problem, it does not look like a technical or biological one.[3]

Eric Holt Gimenez, of Food First (The Institute for Food and Development Policy) put it eloquently: “In 2008 more food was grown than ever before in history. In 2008 more people were obese than ever before in history. In 2008 more profit was made by food companies than ever before in history. And in 2008 more people went hungry than ever before in history.”  But why are people going hungry if we have enough food to feed them?

Amartya Sen,  Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, argued that the 1943 Bengal famine, in which 3 million people died from starvation and malnutrition, was not caused by a shortage of basic food – indeed, India was exporting food during the time that millions of its citizens were dying.  It was, rather, caused by a bunch of other factors[i].  The primary reason, though, was that the poor couldn’t pay for their food:   India was experiencing an economic boom which raised food prices, thereby raising the cost of food beyond the means of millions of rural workers whose wages didn’t keep up.

And the price of our food keeps going up:  In early January, 2011, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its Food Price Index had reached an all-time high in December, exceeding the previous record set during the 2007-08 price surge. Even more alarming, The FAO announced later that the December record had been broken in January as prices climbed an additional 3 percent – then in February they reached the highest level ever recorded.[4]

So if we accept Dr. Sen’s conclusion that food prices are the cause of hunger, what can be done to lower them?  That answer – surprise! – is also extremely complex, including political conflict, poverty, harmful economic systems, and yes, climate change.  To simplify things we’ll just look at one facet of the argument that goes like this:  “ if output can be increased then food prices will moderate”.

How do we increase output enough to moderate food prices AND to feed an additional 2 billion people?  It’s not an impossible task:  according to the FAO’s Kostas Stamoulis, producing enough food to feed the world in the next four decades should be easier than in the previous four.” [5]  But it means changing the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed and accessed – all in a world constrained by Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere.  But producing enough food in the world so that everyone can potentially be fed is not the same thing as ensuring food security for all.[ii]

In the past, if more food was needed farmers just cleared more land, or they went fishing. Yet over the past 5 decades, while grain production has more than doubled, the amount of land devoted to arable agriculture globally has increased by only about 9%[6].  In recent decades, agricultural land that was formerly productive has been lost to urbanization and other human uses, as well as to desertification, salinization, soil erosion, and other consequences of unsustainable land management.  Further losses, which may be exacerbated by climate change, are likely.  Some new land could be brought into cultivation, but the competition for land from other human activities makes this an increasingly unlikely and costly solution, particularly if protecting biodiversity and the public goods provided by natural ecosystems (for example, carbon storage in rainforest) are given higher priority.  Recent policy decisions to produce first-generation biofuels on good quality agricultural land have added to the competitive pressures[7].

So we’re going to have to produce more food on the same amount of land  – probably less.   And fishing doesn’t seem to be an answer:  Virtually all capture fisheries are fully exploited, and most are overexploited.

Recent studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050 [8].  How to achieve that is hotly debated between those who support conventional agriculture (more and better technology) and those who think organic agriculture is a better way to deal with the long term problems created by this food crisis.  You can’t argue the point without knowing a bit about the Green Revolution, since conventional agriculture looks to that model to support its argument.  And that’s next week’s blog.

[3] “Feeding the World”, The Economist

[4] Brown, Lester, “Why world food prices may keep climbing”, Guardian Environment Network,

[5] “Feeding the World”, Ibid.

[6] J. Pretty, Agricultural Sustainability: Concepts, principles and evidence.  Philos. Trans. R. Soc. London Ser. B Biol Sci 363, 447 (2008).

[7] J. Fargione, J Hill, D. Tilman, S. Polasky, P. Hawthorne, Land Clearing and the biofuel carbon debt, Science, 319, 1235 2008).

[i] The government at the time was not a democracy, and the rulers had little interest in listening to the poor, even in the midst of famine.  Dr. Sen believes that shortfalls in food supplies will not cause famine in a democracy because vote-seeking politicians will undertake relief efforts.  So the famine was a combination of a myriad of factors:  wages, distribution, even democracy.

[ii] For more on this topic, see “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”, The Government Office for Science (GO-Science), London



6 responses

1 06 2011

This is a super interesting subject and I’m looking forward to what else you find on this.

I’m wondering though, are you also researching the effects of animal agriculture as well?

2 06 2011

HI Kat: I’m not sure I’ll be able to branch off into that, though I would love to explore more the whole idea of holistic animal husbandry. We’ll see what comes up.

2 06 2011
Hansie Armour

Hi Kat

Kat I agree Animal holistic farming is an important link to food production . As Australian Woolgrowers we now no longer farm our sheep to grow wool we graze sheep to grow the Grass, to improve the Soils ( especially the sugar levels and the neutral PH level) with an increased carbon sequestration and our beautifull wool fibre is now merely a By Product.. Also remembering that 4kg out of every 7 kg of the fibre is sequestered Carbon.The trick is to find the balance and this can not be achieved without our animals.

I am looking forward to the next blog and am amazed at the easy reading of your article about this hugely difficlt and complicated topic.Thank You Patty and Leigh Anne

2 06 2011

I would like to add my thanks too – and put another aspect into the mix as well – I saw a British program recently about the amount of perfectly good food that is wasted i.e thrown away, by us all – it was truly shocking. Jo in NZ

2 06 2011

well first i breath because i want o congratulate you about this great i feel that you are doing someting as exploring .great great and “merci” again.

20 03 2012

Great information! Was very refreshing.

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