Feeding the World?

September 6, 2012
By Chad Kruger

Earlier this year The Economist posted an entry entitled “How to Feed the Planet (continued)” on their Feast and Famine blog. The author presents data that demonstrates the role of international trade (particularly the increase in agricultural exports from Brazil and Russia) in meeting the increased demand for food for the growing populations in Africa and Asia over the past two decades. The author argues that in order to continue meeting the increased demand for food to feed a growing population, we will need to find another region currently under-producing its resource potential (available arable land, water, sunlight, etc.). The Economist suggests that Sub-Saharan Africa is the next logical region of investment in agricultural productivity growth.

At first glance, this conclusion seems to be in contrast to the findings of the seminal work of economist Amartya Sen. In his analysis of the Great Bengal Famine Sen found that food production was not related to the famine, but rather that those in need of food were not able to secure the food.1 This concept Sen coined as “entitlement” (now more commonly discussed as “distribution” and local capacity failures) became well-established in the international food aid community during the latter part of the 20th century as the primary obstacle to “feeding the world” – providing an effective brake on the “production-centric” focus of international hunger dialogue of earlier in the century.

However, the Economist entry does raise an important question – have we reached the point where increased global food consumption coupled with production constraints demand that we think about more than just solutions to distribution for sustainably feeding a rapidly growing population? Many scientists are once again raising questions about the biophysical limits to global food production relative to current consumption trends. For instance, Vaclav Smil describes human population and consumption trends as “creat[ing] an unprecedented demand for the products of photosynthesis” leading to as much as a doubling of human demand for biological resources by mid-century.2 If we consider additional production constraints such as the quantity and quality of water resources, land-use change, soil degradation, and potential negative impacts of climate change in the lower latitudes, at some point we certainly will need to consider improving both production and distribution to ensure a sustainable global food strategy.

In reality, the biophysical “limits” to production are never likely to be a clearly demarcated line we can “know” scientifically (i.e. “Peak Food”), but rather an increasingly complex set of challenges we are unable to adequately mitigate. This is because we now understand that productivity (i.e. “yield”) is an insufficient criterion for determining the limits of food production. We know that there are many options for increasing yield several fold, but each of them comes with costs – some unforgivable. For instance, a somewhat silly way I’ve often heard this expressed is “how many tons of soil erosion should we accept per ton of grain produced?”

It seems that in the absence of a definitive and comprehensive answer about when global consumption demand will surpass production limits, we ought to be having more robust discussions about how to balance investments in improving food production while continuing to resolve distribution and local capacity challenges. It’s not the “either/or” dilemma we seem to want it to be.

  1. Sen, Amartya. 1981. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford:  Clarendon Press.
  2. Smil, Vaclav. 2011. Harvesting the Biosphere: the Human Impact. Population and Development Review 37(4): 613–636/

Filed under Food Systems

4 comments on “Feeding the World?”

  1. Maurice Robinette said on September 6, 2012:

    Most of the components of this discussion are energy dependent. Unless an equivalent replacement for oil is developed, the ultimate solutions will be solar powered. Research has to start focusing on this reality and using solar energy, and all it’s manifestations, as the basis for new work.

  2. Chad Kruger said on September 6, 2012:

    Maurice, I think this is the essential core of Smil’s argument on the energetics of production vs. consumption.

  3. Jahi Chappell said on September 7, 2012:

    Chad — interesting piece. While I think it’s inarguable that both production and consumption will have to be addressed, I think a key point needs to be made: it is relatively clear that increasing production *without* equalizing distribution will do little good, while equalizing access in most places would result in immediate (if sub-optimal) gains. Further, the problem with focusing on increasing production is that it can too easily lead one to side-step political issues that exacerbate production problems or frustrate possible gains from productivity yields altogether. This is, ultimately, one of the keys of Sen’s point: without responsive political systems (e.g. democracy), food access, production, and security is always endangered. Lack of sociopolitical and economic power is nearly universally acknowledged as the ultimate cause of most hunger in the world. So while it’s not “either/or”, it seems to me that it is properly considered a “both/and”, with a big, humungous emphasis on the “sociopolitical & economic power” (distribution) side, and production being an important, but not necessarily equal “and.”

  4. Chad Kruger said on September 7, 2012:

    Very insightful comments Jahi. There are also very good examples where resolving the “distribution” challenges in local areas have been a key to improving productivity as well.

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