Feeding the World?

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/