I recently read an article featured in our Editors’ Picks about the greatest food in the world (the ‘humble’ McDouble for anyone that missed it), chosen as such mainly because of its affordability and energy content. This got me thinking: will we have enough food to go around in the long run, or will we all be forced to survive on McDoubles for sustenance?
Long ago, at the start of the 19th century, Thomas Malthus postulated an argument which can be summarised as follows: the continued growth of population is dependent on the land available to grow crops. As more people came into being, more food would have to be produced until there was no more land to grow crops on. Thus the world would eventually be doomed, as everyone would starve.
Thankfully Malthus forgot to account for growth in technology and productivity, which allowed us to make more efficient use of land. So today, whilst there are unfortunately still malnourished people, it is generally accepted that the world could in theory produce enough food to feed itself.
However this does beg the question: will this still be the case in 30-50 years’ time? Let’s put things into perspective: currently there are about 7 billion of us in the world, and this number is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, according to a study done by the UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Checking the Human Development Index, of the current 7 billion, only 1 billion currently live in developed countries. Which means the other 6 are in developing countries where consumption (of food especially) is still fast growing. According to a different OECD-FAO study done this year, China alone has increased its food consumption fivefold in the past three decades, and this growth will likely continue. Furthermore, China has driven much of the recent rise in global food prices, as measured by the FAO Food Price Index. The implications of this are that in 30 years, a) there will be more people on the planet and, b) these people will demand more to eat.
To make up for this increase in demand, the FAO predicts that the amount of food will need to increase by 70% worldwide, which translates to an extra billion tons of cereals per year and 200 million tons of meat. Research done by a team at the University of Minnesota (published in this journal) found that, to double the key crops of maize, rice, wheat and soybeans by 2050 worldwide, there would need to be an increase in output of 2.4% per year. Their research suggests that currently, the maximum supported increase will be between 0.9-1.6%, and thus would only lead to an increase between 55-67%.
So it’s not all bad it seems: assuming there are some advancements in productivity, we should be able to grow just enough food to feed ourselves. This however, assumes that the production base remains able to supply the necessary food yields. Surveys done by the FAO show that almost two-thirds of all ecosystems currently in use for food production are at risk of serious land damage. If investment in maintenance is not undertaken, the damage caused by intensive agriculture could lead to soil nutrient-depletion, desertification, and exhaustion of freshwater. Other factors, such as the rising risk of extreme weather, need to be factored in as well and are a large unknown in global food security.
Of course, coming purely from the supply side is perhaps overlooking one of the most critical aspects of why some people do not have access to food – overproduction. The NSW government estimates that Australians throw out 20% of all groceries, amounting to about $1,000 a year. Globally it’s not much better, if not worse, with similar estimates in developed countries showing that about a third of food is being wasted. The causes range from behavioural/cultural norms, to technology barriers such as storage and transportation, which in itself is a problem that might be more difficult to solve, compared to merely increasing the output of food production.
According to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), Australia currently produces enough food – mostly beef, wheat and dairy – for ourselves and others, contributing to the diets of about 60 million people worldwide. We are a net exporter of food, and export around 70% of the food produced. Whilst our immediate food supply is unlikely to be threatened in the coming years, in the long term the challenges of having relatively limited arable land will pose a challenge to raising food outputs.
There is also the risk that if Australia is unable to meet the food demands of our neighbours, they may experience economic and political instability, which is ultimately detrimental to Australia’s economic growth potential. The recent creation of a National Food Plan by the DAFF is a good first step, but whether or not it has any real effect on global food production remains to be seen.
Finally, it is also important to acknowledge that besides the global perspective, within Australia there are still approximately 2 million people who go hungry regularly. This is a social issue that increased production levels alone won’t change if Australia does not increase food accessibility to those who need it the most. This is a challenge that both the Australian government and we the Australian people must collectively confront, in order to make a real difference for those in need.
Dept of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
Foodbank: Australian hunger statistics
NSW EPA food waste factsheet
OECD-FAO Agricultural outlook
U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation
U.N. Human Development Index
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