Feed the world?
July 3, 2007 12:06 PM   Subscribe

Is there enough food on Earth to feed every person on Earth?

Links to legitimate research (for or against) are a bonus.
posted by kidsleepy to Human Relations (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding is that there's way more than enough food on Earth to feed everyone adequately. It's distributing the food that's the real problem.

Sorry, no research to back that up. :(
posted by mpls2 at 12:09 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yes. There's more food per capita today than there was forty years ago, and there will be more food per capita in twenty years than there is today.
posted by commander_cool at 12:11 PM on July 3, 2007

The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (Food and Agriculture Organization 2002, FAO 1998. The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food. cite.
posted by ND¢ at 12:12 PM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Indeed, it would seem that the problem of feeding people nowadays is often more political than technical. E.g. Stalin's forced famine of the Ukrainian people in the 1930s is a good historical example. For a more recent example, look to Robert Mugabe's colossal mismanagement of Zimbabwe.
posted by chlorus at 12:15 PM on July 3, 2007

distribution is the main problem, or is that an extremely obvious post once you recognise there is sufficient food?
posted by trashcan at 12:17 PM on July 3, 2007

According to the recent report on food insecurity from the FAO (www.fao.org/), there are about 800 million undernourished people in the world today. Yet there is enough grain to provide every human being on the planet with 3500 calories per day, which could, with other foods, provide at least 2 kg of food person per day, including 1135 g of grain, beans and nuts, and nearly another 450 g of meat, milk and eggs(1). We can feed everyone, we simply do not have a system for distributing food more equitably. We could start by releasing for human consumption the 38% of world grain now fed to animals (70% in USA), but that is not a policy likely to be implemented in the near future. (originally found here)

Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world's food supply. Enough wheat, rice and other grains are produced to provide every human being with 3,200 calories a day. That doesn't even count many other commonly eaten foods - ­vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. Enough food is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day worldwide: two and half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs - ­enough to make most people fat! The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. Even most "hungry countries" have enough food for all their people right now. Many are net exporters of food and other agricultural products. (Institute for Food and Development Policy Backgrounder Summer 1998, Vol.5, No. 3)

The World Health Organization takes a less determined approach but it's unclear whether this is due to politicking or facts.

Food security is a complex sustainable development issue, linked to health through malnutrition, but also to sustainable economic development, environment, and trade. There is a great deal of debate around food security with some arguing that:

* There is enough food in the world to feed everyone adequately; the problem is distribution.
* Future food needs can - or cannot - be met by current levels of production.
* National food security is paramount - or no longer necessary because of global trade.
* Globalization may - or may not - lead to the persistence of food insecurity and poverty in rural communities.

More sets of questions from the World Bank addressing "food security" which is probably the Googleable term for you.

The general analysis is that calorically it seems that the world generates enough calories to feed the world. However, there are so many mitigating and complicating factors that it's not a question of just getting Powerbars to sub-Saharan Africa
posted by jessamyn at 12:24 PM on July 3, 2007 [10 favorites]

i guess the follow up would be why we don't feed everyone if we can, but i assume that's all political, if not just a practicality issue.

thanks for all the links! if you have any other goods ones, keep 'em coming. "dumbed down" links even better, with facts i can remember easily.
posted by kidsleepy at 12:27 PM on July 3, 2007

i guess the follow up would be why we don't feed everyone if we can

Because the problem is distribution. The food is not where the people are.
posted by mendel at 12:32 PM on July 3, 2007

It's not answering the question, but isn't the answer to this self-evident? There must be enough food because everybody is fed.

There are famines but these are caused by droughts or wars, and not specifically the inability to produce food because of an inherent issue with food production. Similarly, people are starving, but that's again more to do with situation and location than to do with food supply.
posted by deeper red at 12:36 PM on July 3, 2007

everybody is fed . . . people are starving

You gotta pick one dude. Both these statements can't be true at the same time.
posted by ND¢ at 12:45 PM on July 3, 2007

One problem with "sufficiency" is that diets evolve. A progressive increase in the extraordinarily inefficient conversion of primary plant foodstuffs into animal proteins and fats seems to generally accompany increases in per capita calorie output. Basically, as countries produce more food, and then excess food, they pour a lot of it down the gullets of animals, obtaining a fraction back as animal food, and a lot of shite. This happens for a lot of different economic and social reasons. Now with the latest ethanol fad, countries like the US are basically just burning their excess food calories.
posted by meehawl at 12:50 PM on July 3, 2007

people are starving, but that's again more to do with situation and location than to do with food supply.

And the situation, according to the World Health Organization, is complicated. Everyone is NOT fed. People are dying of malnutrition and starvation everywhere, including in the US. There are a host of things that lead to food insecurity including droughts and wars. So, according to the USDA, regarding the US.
  • 35.1 million people lived in households considered to be food insecure.
  • Of those 35.1 million, 22.7 million are adults (10.4 percent of all adults) and 12.4 million are children (16.9 percent of all children).
  • The number of people in the worst-off households (previously called “food insecure with hunger” and now called “very low food security” households) rose in 2005, from 10.7 to 10.8 million.
And here are some definitions

Food security is a term used to describe what our nation should be seeking for all its people – assured access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life, with no need for recourse to emergency food sources or other extraordinary coping behaviors to meet basic food needs. In a nation as affluent as ours this is a readily achievable goal.

Food insecurity refers to the lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources. There are different levels of food insecurity.
posted by jessamyn at 12:51 PM on July 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

There must be enough food because everybody is fed.

So if I take away all your food and prevent you from getting more, you'll starve to death. And we're back to everyone (else) being fed. Yay!
posted by adamrice at 1:09 PM on July 3, 2007

While not entirely on point, I should mention the relevance of the Haber Process which basically is the reason we have the quantity of food available to us today, as it it the basis for the production of modern fertilizers.

I'm not sure where I read it, but someone postulated that if weren't the work of the same man who invented Zyklon B and possibly drove his wife to suicide, our planet would only be able to support half the population it supports today.
posted by mjbraun at 1:10 PM on July 3, 2007

In the Omnivore's Dilemma, the author mentions some UN statistics that there are 800 million hungry people, and 1 billion obese people. So the number of overnourished exceeds the number of undernourished.

HOWEVER, and this is a rather large however, modern first-world agriculture depends to a great extent on the easy, cheap availability of oil. Fertilizer is oil. Tractors run on oil. The trucks that move the food run on oil.

There is a very real likelihood that when oil is no longer easy and cheap, the price of food is going to go way up and the amount of food produced is going to go down. Organic, fertilizer-free agriculture, despite being better in an economic and long-run sense, nevertheless simply doesn't produce as much food per acre as current corporate farming methods do. So while there is enough food today, there is no guarantee that this will continue. (Well, barring a disaster, there will always be *enough* food in stable countries with decent water supplies, but the amount of surplus may diminish. If Cheetos end up costing $12/bag, people may buy fewer Cheetos and fewer Cheetos may be produced.)

There is a real, fundamental limit in calories that can be produced from a plot of land. Solar energy is one input. Fossil fuels (fertilizer) is the other. The amount of energy in food you get from the land is something less than the sum of those two inputs, period. Modern corn plants happen to be good at maximizing that output, which is one reason why the U.S. agricultural economy runs on corn. But you can't just increase that output forever - there's a wall beyond which you cannot pass. And as fertilizer gets more expensive, the wall actually comes forward - the amount you can get out of a plot of land decreases. You can finesse this for a while - looking for plants that can be planted really close to one another, so that not one square inch of the land isn't covered by leaves, for example - but eventually you run out of finessing room.

This may or may not result in more famines. As others point out, famines are due to lack of food distribution, not worldwide lack in quantity, and that may change or may not. (It won't. First-world nations aren't suddenly going to start caring about Africa.)

U.S. agriculture subsidies are largely responsible for the U.S.'s current overproduction of food. Corn farmers can grow corn for $2.50/bushel, sell it for $1.50/bushel, and still make money, due to the magical hand of farm subsidies. If those were to end, again, overall food production would decrease significantly and consumer prices would increase.
posted by jellicle at 1:13 PM on July 3, 2007

everybody is fed . . . people are starving

You gotta pick one dude. Both these statements can't be true at the same time.

Well, no, I see his point. The fact that the people on Earth exist and haven't died already means they have been eating. When a person grows they are basically converting food into more of themselves. People may starve at one point in their lives if their food supply runs out but they must have been eating for years before that.

Read Ishmael, or The Story of B, by Daniel Quinn for an interesting take on this.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:24 PM on July 3, 2007

The "mitigating and complicating factors" link jessamyn connects us to above lead to an excellent United Nations report (PDF) on food insecurity in developing countries - it's really worth leafing through because it measures hunger in lots of different ways, and shows the picture to be more complex than "poor countries have food problems" or "distribution issues hinder food security."

Ghana, for example, is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has achieved the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of undernourished people, even though the percentage of people living on less than a dollar a day more than doubled in the ten years of the survey; if you look at the charts near the end of the report, you'll see that Ghana is one of the only countries in the region where agricultural GDP and the annual per capita growth of food production are both growing at a not-insignificant rate, and is also one of the only countries among its peers - its peers being those countries where 10-19% of the population is undernourished - where the agriculture value added per worker ($346/year in 2003) exceeds GDP per capita ($269/year in 2003).

One would think that such a decline in per capita income would make for mass starvation or at least food shortages, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

On preview, while there may be a limit to the amount of calories one can get from a certain area of land, new areas in the developing world are being constantly "upgraded" (whatever your opinion of massively-scaled monocrop farms) to more mechanized methods of agriculture, yielding ever-larger crops, though at unknown expense. Look at satellite photos of the Amazon ten years ago and today and you'll see the full-on terraforming of the countryside into agricultural land; and yet, even though Brazil still faces some pretty big food problems - between 5 and 9% of its population are undernourished, a similar proportion of the population as places like Indonesia, Gabon, Croatia(!), and Slovakia(!) - the country is a huge exporter of food.
posted by mdonley at 2:24 PM on July 3, 2007

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, observed that no independent democracy with a free press has ever suffered a famine.
posted by futility closet at 2:30 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here's the famine Amartya Sen experienced as a child which gave him the idea futility closet mentioned. Essentially, people became too poor to buy rice after rumors of famine after the fall of Singapore and the Japanese invasion of Burma, right next to what was then called Bengal, led to hoarding and rocketing prices.

From the Wikipedia article:

Its root causes, Sen argues, lay in rumours of shortage which caused hoarding, and rapid price inflation caused by war-time demands which made rice stocks an excellent investment (prices had already doubled over the previous year).

Whilst landowning peasants who actually grew rice, together with those employed in defence-related industries in urban areas and at the docks saw their wages rise, this led to a disastrous shift in the exchange entitlements of groups such as landless labourers, fishermen, barbers, paddy huskers and other groups who found the real value of their wages had been slashed by two-thirds since 1940. Quite simply, although Bengal had enough rice and other grains to feed itself, millions of people were suddenly too poor to buy it.

posted by mdonley at 3:21 PM on July 3, 2007

Saying that food distribution is the problem downplays deliberate efforts by some regimes to create a permanent edge-of-starvation refugee populace within their borders so that they can attract humanitarian aid and subsequently siphon off and divert it for other purposes.

Foreign Affairs - Feeding Refugees or War?

Some argue that by giving aid we subvert local economies and perpetuate the problem.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:53 PM on July 3, 2007

I did say that food distribution was the problem, and I didn't mean to downplay deliberate acts of man. Let me state it specifically: food distribution is the problem, and most often, the failure of food to reach particular places is due to intentional acts of men. Very rarely in the modern world would anyone starve if not for the deliberate acts of other human beings to deny them food.

(The "no democracy has had a famine" line sounds good, but is false: Irish Potato Famine anyone? Ireland had 100 elected MPs in the UK parliament at the time, so their interests were certainly represented. The UK certainly had a free press and free trade, and yet the government declined to take effective action to mitigate the Irish famine. Now, there were political consequences: the Irish were so pissed off that they are only now calming down, 160 years later. So declining to mitigate the famine was not, perhaps, the most foresighted thing that the British government could have done. But the famine happened.)
posted by jellicle at 5:14 PM on July 3, 2007

i guess the follow up would be why we don't feed everyone if we can

Because the problem is distribution. The food is not where the people are.

That's not an answer, that's restating the question as a sentence.

The food is not where the people are because it is to the economic benefit of certain other people.

Though very often the food is where the people are - or at least the arable land - but those people are compelled by landowners (ie. transnational corporations, and often the paramilitaries that work for them) or governments to farm monoculture crops for export, rather than subsistence crops for local markets.

And even when the food is distributed, it often makes the problem worse.

But there's also the question of what you mean by "feed." I imagine that, no, there is not enough food (or food production capability) in the world to feed everyone like they were, say, a middle-class American... at least not without taxing human-supporting ecosystems to the point of collapse. Animal populations do have limits, after all, and we are still animals.
posted by poweredbybeard at 6:42 PM on July 3, 2007

Jellicle wrote: Organic, fertilizer-free agriculture, despite being better in an economic and long-run sense, nevertheless simply doesn't produce as much food per acre as current corporate farming methods do.

That's probably not true.
posted by acridrabbit at 7:21 PM on July 3, 2007

Enough wheat, rice and other grains are produced to provide every human being with 3,200 calories a day.

That seems to come from a 1998 book. Since 1999, the world has been consuming more grain than it produces, even though not everyone is adequately supplied with food. I'm guessing there would still be enough to feed everyone if all waste were somehow eliminated, or crops for non-food uses were eliminated, or if everyone ate less meat. But food prices have been rising well above the rate of general inflation lately, and I suspect that's another sign that supply has tightened recently, though that's due in some part to higher oil prices. I wouldn't trust answers to this question that don't take into account the developments of the past few years.
posted by sfenders at 5:31 AM on July 4, 2007

I'm familiar with a number of the statistics cited in this thread, but I'm looking for some numbers that answer the "hunger question" for the USA in a different way:

Hunger in America: Meals missed per day?

If I could come up with any general metric ("Three percent of all the children in the US miss at least one meal per day due to poverty") it would help a lot. Thanks.
posted by lasitter at 6:25 AM on December 26, 2007

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