5 reasons why the world can feed 10 billion

Every year, we add 78 million people to the world’s population – equivalent to a new USA every 4 years. Demographers, mathematicians and environmentalists have been warning for years that the world’s population will eventually hit a natural limit. Although famines are more rare in some parts of the world, the number of hungry people began growing again in 2008. As global population passes 7 billion, 8 billion and onwards, many fear that mass starvation is looking increasingly likely.

This is the first in a two part series on feeding the world. This post argues that we can feed a population of 10 billion. Part two presents the challenges and counter-arguments.

Global famine is not inevitable. The UN estimates that global population will peak at around 9.2 billion people. Provided we can curb growth and not exceed that by any more than we have to, here are five reasons to believe that the planet could support those numbers:

1)      The Green Revolution is unfinished
The main reason why we haven’t seen the mass starvation long predicted by the likes of Robert Malthus is the ‘green revolution’. Fertiliser and hybrid seeds raised yields across South America and then India, lifting whole countries out of a cycle of food shortages. As more and more countries have adopted better agricultural techniques, the amount of food we can grow has kept ahead of population rise.

I’m not going to join those who assume that because we’ve done okay so far, we can increase yields indefinitely, but consider this: The US gets 5 tonnes of grain per hectare from its fields, Asia gets 3, and Africa gets just 1 tonne per hectare. So let’s kick off a Green Revolution for Africa.

2)      We haven’t tried free trade yet
‘Trade not aid’ goes the standard development cop-out, but the politicians most likely to spout such platitudes are usually the first to speak up in defence of subsidies too. US and EU subsidies make it possible for farmers to sell food into export markets for less than the cost of production. Released into developing world markets, it undercuts local farmers and puts them out of business.

Free trade is not the answer, but it is part of it. Until we sweep away the structures that destroy local food systems, we don’t know how many poorer countries could be self-sufficient, or how much food the world can produce. Incidentally, free trade is a process and an ideal. African countries should be allowed to subsidise and protect their domestic markets until they are established, just like all industrialised countries did when they were developing.

3)      A third of the food the world grows is wasted
Here in the UK, we throw away half the carrots and potatoes and lettuces we grow because they don’t look good enough for the supermarkets. Even if it makes it to the shops, a third of the food we buy is thrown away because we’re no good at estimating portions, or because we miss things at the back of the fridge.

Up to a third of harvests are lost in the developing world too, for different reasons. Stored grain gets damp or contaminated. Fruit gets crushed on the way to market. Through simple technologies like grain silos for storage and crates for transport, refrigeration, or machine drying, much of this loss could be prevented (pdf).

We grow enough food today to feed seven billion people, with enough surplus to let a third of it go to waste. Even the most sophisticated agricultural systems lose some in processing, but harvest loss and food waste present a clear opportunity for efficiency gains.

4)      Food is for eating
According to law, all petrol sold in the EU needs to include biofuels in the mix, currently 2.5%. It’s supposed to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and lower our carbon emissions, but in a world where people are going hungry, diverting food into biofuels is hardly responsible. 40% of the US corn harvest now goes to biofuels, and the corn required to fill an SUV tank with biofuels could feed an adult for an entire year.
The answer is not to cut back on biofuels and replace them with fossil fuels again – the answer is to drive less in the first place.

5)      Diet for a small planet
Currently only half of the grain grown in the world is eaten by people. Some of that other half is turned into the aforementioned biofuels, and the rest of it is fed to animals. Whether it is farmed fish, chickens, pigs, or cows, more of us are eating meat than ever before, and more of it too. On average, it takes eight kilos of grain to produce one kilo of meat. With beef it can be twice that. If we ate less meat, less often, that grain could be freed up to feed to people directly, and it would feed eight times as many as could be fed on the meat. We don’t need to give up meat entirely, but eating less would make our food resources go further.

Furthermore, many people in the world are just eating too much, period. Meat or not, many countries have a huge obesity problem while other countries go hungry. A little redistribution would be in everyone’s best interests.

If we pursued all five of the principles above, there’s no reason why we can’t raise global food production. And that’s without sensible ideas like a grow-your-own revolution, or more controversial ideas like GM crops or plain daft ones like hydroponic skyscrapers. There’s no one answer. We’ll need every idea we’ve got, not least because we’ve got a lot of obstacles working against us – and for those, see part two of this series, 5 reasons why we can’t feed 10 billion.

7 Comments on “5 reasons why the world can feed 10 billion”

  1. Byron Smith April 27, 2011 at 7:49 pm #

    There are different kinds of possibilities. Political possibilities do not always correlate with ecological ones. Fortunately, the former are (somewhat) more malleable.

    Great post(s). Thanks!

  2. Marcus Simmons April 28, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    If rich countries stop over-eating and cut right down on using grain for animal feeds and biofuels, will this necessarily help poorer nations? Arguably it could lead to much more ‘dumping’ by rich producers on developing-country markets, thus disrupting domestic markets and production in a way that is much worse than the current bad situation.

    So, how to prevent such adverse consequences and ensure maximum benefit to those who really need it? Has anyone competent been analysing this problem and possible solutions?

    • Jeremy April 29, 2011 at 9:38 am #

      If it were a direct switch, it is likely to lead to dumping, as you say. If it happened over the course of several years, with trade reform happening in parallel, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work. At the moment there’s just about enough grain to keep up with demand. (food riots in 2008 were because of price, not availability) If population grows and food production can’t keep pace, then we will reach a point where meat production and feeding people come into competition.

      Left to the free market, the cows will get fed and the people won’t, because beef consumers in developed countries have money, and hungry people in poorer countries don’t. It is likely that, to make it work, governments would need to regulate the price of meat to reflect its true cost. Or there could be a major voluntary movement to eat less meat.

      Tristram Stuart’s book ‘Waste: uncovering the global food scandal’ has a lot of good analysis on these kinds of questions. ‘Enough’ by Roger Thrurow and Scott Kilman is good on the role of markets and how they could be made to work better for developing countries.

  3. Marcus Simmons April 29, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    Thanks for your helpful feedback here too (and see my comments to your sister article).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 5 reasons why the world can’t feed 10 billion « Make Wealth History - April 27, 2011

    [...] our over-reliance on a very few food crops. But there are also things we can do, as I explained in part one of this two part series. [...]

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    [...] year I wrote five reasons why the world can feed ten billion, and five reasons why we can’t. I wrote both, not because I’m indecisive, but because [...]

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    [...] rather than a model for future farming – but rather than end on a negative note, here are some things that actually could help feed our growing global population. Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

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