On feeding the world

Food shortages. Bad harvests. Export bans. Haven’t we seen these headlines before?

“The end of food”

In February 2011, wholesale food prices jumped up 3.9%, the biggest one-month increase in 36 years, causing scare headlines about the end of cheap food to be brought out of storage, where they have been since 2008, when they were put away in favour of financial meltdown. Some suggested insects could eventually replace meat. Some quoted economists and said that grain shortages, Middle East turmoil and extreme weather in critical crop-producing regions had interceded to send food prices higher this year.

We wrote about this in September 2007 and again in April 2008. While times have moved on since then, the discussion has not. In 1996, the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that the world was, in fact, already producing enough food to provide every person with 2,700 calories a day. That’s about 600 more calories than any of us really need. The world has enough to eat. The problem is – has always been – that not everybody gets to it.

Between 30% and 50% of all food produced globally is wasted. In Britain and the US, a quarter of all food from shops goes directly into the bin. The US alone threw away 43 million tonnes of food in 1997, according to figures in The Economist. Extrapolating, if all rich countries waste at the same rate, this totals around 100 million tonnes of food a year. Why? The Economist cites “law”, presumably regarding food safety and use-by dates. These laws are there to protect consumers, so the temptation is to say that nothing can be done. But it also begs the question of why food is stocked that does not sell (half of all salads in shops are thrown away). Or why consumers end up buying too much food, which they cannot consume before the law deems it spoiled or unsafe. The article suggests that, when all is said and done, food in these countries is cheap enough for consumers not to care …

In poor countries, a similar quantity of food is wasted on farms or in the early stages of the supply chain. The reasons are inadequate or inappropriate storage, lack of infrastructure and cold chain and little money to invest in such improvements.

It is galling to write again, four years on, about the threat that governmental biofuel policies pose to food security and the effect this could have on social stability and geopolitical conflict. Even back in 2007, it didn’t take great genius to see that if you divert food crops, such as wheat or maize, for fuel production then there will be less food and prices will rise. As policymaking goes, burning your dinner so you can drive to the supermarket surely has to rank among the most short-sighted and self-defeating. And yet, targets remain: the European Union, Brazil, Japan and Indonesia have set a target of 10% of all fuel to be sourced from biofuels. The US is supposed to meet a target of 30% by 2030. Not only this, but biofuel production is tremendously greedy when it comes to raw material. If the goal really is to ensure that the world has enough to eat in 2050, then production of biofuel should stop.

Despite the FAO figures, the argument that we could feed the world adequately with existing resources is facile. There are political, economical and biological obstacles to effective redistribution and such a utopia is unlikely to emerge. But consumer goods companies do have an economic incentive to invest in agriculture, infrastructure and supply chain in the world’s poorest countries. They also have an economic incentive to drive waste out of the supply chain and better predict demand in stores.

Meanwhile, demand for meat and grain is growing from developing nations and increased productivity, rather than fairer distribution, seems to be the only way to meet it. But as seasonal change becomes ever less predictable and extreme weather events move inexorably from anomaly to norm, crops are thrown into disarray. Arable land co-opted for biofuel production cannot produce food, further reducing supply. How to produce more, then, from  less? Some claim there is a single solution, glowing brightly in the distance: genetically modified crops (GM).

An op-ed piece in The Economist – written anonymously, as are all articles in the paper – claims that by 2050, population growth will have slowed to almost zero. The genomes of most major crops have been sequenced, the technology to improve yields exists. It is perfectly possible, the piece claims, to feed the nine billion if only countries will embrace genetically modified plant technology. The article goes on to suggest that Europe will find itself marginalised if it continues its reticence, while the BRICs will rise in economic importance and geopolitical power.

In public at least, the major suppliers of GM seeds and technology fight shy of claiming their wares are the proverbial silver bullet when it comes to meeting the demands of population growth. What is certain is that the world is already producing enough to feed itself, without GM. What get in the way are politics, uneven distribution, short-term thinking and waste at every level, from producer down to consumer.

This seems a highly inefficient way to run a planet. Could it be time for a strategic review?

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