Food keeping pace with population

Shannon Roberts
6 March 2014
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

Many people have a vague idea that too many people could have something to do with the existence of hunger in the world. This is often used as an argument for population control. If there really wasn't going to be enough food for your children to eat, certainly that would be a valid reason for families to decide to limit their size (notice I said families to decide and not governments or anyone else to impose a decision). However, in fact, the problem is largely despotic individuals and inequalities in food distribution.

This week the Environmental research web reported that "crop yields have largely kept pace with population expansion", largely because new research has boosted crop yields. We are learning more every day about better ways of doing things. The Atlas of Population and Environment also reports that:

Over the past four decades, worldwide food production has more than kept pace with the doubling of world population. There is currently an average of 2 790 calories of food available each day for every human on the planet -- 23 percent more than in 1961 and enough to feed everyone. Moreover, there is potential slack in the system. If only a third of the cereals fed to livestock were put instead directly onto human plates, the per-capita calories available daily would rise to 3 000 (Bender, Environment, 29(2): 10, 1997.)

Gains in food availability have been greatest in the developing world, where the green revolution enabled a rise of 38 percent between 1961 and 1998 to 2 660 calories per person daily.

However, the article goes on to note that we still have not overcome inequalities in food distribution. The developed world, with only 25% of the world's population, consumes 49% of the world's agricultural products.

I thought it was also interesting that the world currently uses only a tiny fraction of the genetic resources available for food. Of 270 000 plants known to science only around 120 are widely cultivated today and just nine of them provide 75% of our food! There were also some headlines a few months ago suggesting that we should be eating more bugs - apparently they would be very good for us and are also numerous! Hmmm…

We are all naturally concerned about those who go hungry in our world, but it is good to understand the food situation as it really is, rather than relying on scaremongering articles which often have predictions of doom in them that never come to fruition. We also need to be mindful that our below replacement fertility rates mean that population growth has significantly slowed.