Feeding the planet

Marcus Roberts
August 11, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

Predictions about the future growth of the world's population are changing and seem to be seeping into the popular consciousness somewhat. While indefinite growth into the future is unlikely, even the new revisions that are making the news predict that the world's population will grow by another two billion people in the next few decades before starting to subside.

This of course brings forward the age-old Malthusian concerns: how on Earth are we going to feed all these people on Earth? As the US ambassador to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation put it a couple of years ago: "We've got a growing world and a hungry world. We need to make sure we do our part in helping feed that hungry world." The word "crisis" is used often.

But perhaps we should be a little careful before we accept such words at face value . After all, the long-term trend (over the last century or so) has been toward ever more food and declining food prices even while the population to be fed has quadrupled. By the year 2000, the cost of food was one-third what it was 100 years before even though the number of people needing such food was many times greater.

Thus, the number of undernourished people in the world has been declining in both absolute and proportional terms. (So much for the Population Bomb nonsense). And the reason that there are still malnourished or hungry people in the world is due to war, political oppression or malfeasance or poverty. Not because there isn't enough food. After all, we waste about one-third of all food produced in the world (because we throw it out, or because it is destroyed in conflict, or rots due to inefficient supply chains etc).

So why do we keep hearing about food crises? Why is panic about mass starvation in the face of a growing population so common?

Catherine Kling, an economist at Cornell University, thinks that there is a lot of politics involved. Farmers and lobbyists may be overegging the starvation threat as an argument against regulation of farmers: "if we have to bear these costs, then we'll go out of business and we'll starve". Scientists undertaking agricultural research also have an incentive to emphasise the risks of food shortages as they chase limited grant money. Finally, it is instinctive for us as a species to worry, and food shortages is a fairly important thing to worry about!

But at the moment prices are down and production is up. US farmers are unhappy about low prices for corn and soybeans and milk. So much so that they've demanded and received billions of dollars in governmental aid.

The danger with obsessing about phantom present or future food shortages is that it prevents us with dealing with the efficiency of food production and thus actually helping the planet without hurting the poorest of the world's population. As Tom Hertel, an economist at Purdue University argues: "The issue is not, can we produce enough food… It is, can we produce enough food in a way that doesn't' destroy the environment."

Rather than subsidising farmers when prices are low, governments could pay farmers to convert some of their land back into grasslands, forests or wetlands. This is already happening in Europe but could, as farming becomes even more productive, spread elsewhere. This would be good for the planet and global warming while still producing enough food for us all.