Friday, 18 April 2014

Feed the world

It is common to claim that farmers are losing the race to feed the world. The world's population is projected to hit 9 billion by 2050 - how on earth are we going to manage? Conferences, feature articles, and modelling is underway, with most of the focus being on how to increase yields and stop those pesky greenies ruining things.

Just last week in NZ, William Rolleston (who is expected to be the next president of Federated Farmers) told us that we are morally obliged to embrace genetically modified food because of this "feed the world" problem.

It seems that this whole line of argument is rubbish. Either these people haven't looked at the data or they are engaging in some kind of big lie strategy. The following chart shows FAO data on world food balances for the most recent 20 years available.
World Food Production Per Capita Per Day (Source:FAO)

The green line shows the world's population (in billions, using the right hand scale) growing inexorably. The red line shows that even though population has been growing, we are still producing more food per person.. In 2009, world production of food was 2831KCal per person per day.

The FAO's minimum recommended food intake is 1800KCal/person/day. Food needs vary with age and gender so the total requirement depends on the age profile of the population. To make the chart I used the Australian guidance which is 2079 KCal/day on average. If that is a reasonable figure, we can use it to calculate how many people the world could have fed with the food actually produced. That's the purple line in the chart.

Conclusion: the world can already feed 9 billion people. If there is a problem here, it is not a shortage of food.


  1. The new discourse is that no one ever claimed that GM was needed to feed the world. Now the claim is that it is 'just one more tool in the toolbox'! Seems that initial hype has moderated except in a few outliers.
    The productivist argument is flawed, as you point out, but for other reasons too, such as sustainability of the productivist model especially when GM crops are used in it. See (free download).
    But more to the point, even if one is nervous about the margin between what can be produced and what we anticipate as need, there are other options. Numerous excellent reports from the UN since 2009 have shown that reducing food waste would be more than sufficient to meet any gap between current production and future need, even without raising production. And in doing so, we would lighten our touch on the Earth.
    The real future is not in the technology of changing the genome of plants, but in the way we choose to reward farmers and innovators that can solve the problems of waste and increase soil fertility without further reliance on unsustainable 'green revolution' techniques.
    Consumers, especially in wealthy countries, must be prepared to do their part too. They must stop demanding beautiful food, achieved through the use of massive quantities of invisible chemicals, and instead demand good food.

    1. Unfortunately it might mean consumers would also need to stop buying fair-trade coffee and the like which incentivise farmers to move away food crops

  2. Thanks for this and yes I fully agree about the importance of "the way we choose to reward farmers". If there were even roughly accurate price signals for soil degradation and soil building we'd get a lot more attention on this stuff.

  3. Have you considered a way to not just price the cost of currently socialised expenses, but to reward sustainable but 'uneconomic' practices? For example, could we increase the value of labour and decrease the value of pesticides by possibly removing all pesticides as deductable expenses of business, and reduce income taxes for those doing some kinds of farm-related work? What I'm thinking is that low income labourers would have even lower tax rates, making their relative incomes higher at no expense to the farmer. These sources of labour could help to increase the diversity of pest-management options and thus shift the emphasis from chemical factories to people.
    Perhaps this is naive. As an economist, do you have other suggestions?

  4. This clearly shows that the answer to hunger,starvation,poverty is really hidden in world politics.

  5. Interesting question. I will give it some thought. On the matter of pesticides/herbicides there is a sound economic argument for taxing them to reflect the cost of any negative environmental effects, something that is being done in Denmark and perhaps other places already.

    I'm less sure of the labour suggestion but its worth thinking about. We certainly use human power on the farm in place of herbicide (eg to control californian thistle) and it'd be nice to think of ways of making this easier.

    So thanks for the suggestion - I'll have a think about it.