Sources of information about feeding our human family


The relationship between the amount of food to eat and the number of people wanting to eat it has been basic to our survival since before we were people. Our early social structure, like that of other great apes, likely revolved around food and sex, with primitive hierarchy determining who got both.

Our agricultural revolutions—independently developed in at least three regions—intensified hierarchy and allowed civilizations to grow into empires. Food storage lead to increased population density, which eventually exceeded the food supply. Hunger drove expansion into neighboring territories, resulting in conflicts with the people who lived there. Winners took all, and surviving losers escaped to less-desirable territories. Our cultural evolution favored breeding and aggression.

Agriculture nourished great civilizations, each of which inevitably collapsed under their own weight. Populations increased with the food supply, always pushing the limits to the breaking point. Some lasted hundreds of years until further expansion became impossible.

Each empire’s collapse included starvation and violence, with natural selection determining who survived the dieoff to repeat the cycle.

This rise and fall of empires has continued through modern times, fed by our selected traits of excessive breeding and aggression. This time we’ve evolved into an interdependent global civilization on a scale so massive we barely recognize it as such, preferring to cling to quaint nationalism, particularly in what may have been the last empire for a very long time: the USA.

As the following articles explain, we’ve again done what we’ve always done: pushed the limits of our food supply to the breaking point. Cultivation covers approximately 24% of the world’s land area and uses 70% of the world’s developed fresh water supplies.

Articles are grouped in the following categories, based on their primary focus:

Increasing food production to meet demand

FAO World Livestock Report Projects Drastic Increase in Meat Consumption
December 14, 2011
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has released the 2011 World Livestock Report, which underscores the strains that a growing world population and increased consumption of animal protein will place on natural resources.
The FAO projects a 73% increase in meat consumption by 2050 and that much of the future demand for livestock will be met by large-scale/intensive operations, which may pose significant environmental impacts through groundwater pollution and increased emissions.

Agriculture needs massive investment to avoid hunger, scientists warn
Group of leading scientists urge investment in sustainable agriculture to solve hunger crisis and reduce global warming
Fiona Harvey
November 16, 2011
Billions more investment is needed in agriculture and food distribution systems around the world in the next few years, if widespread hunger is to be avoided, according to a group of leading scientists.
The scientists also called for a change in consumption patterns “to ensure that basic nutritional needs are met and to foster healthy and sustainable eating habits worldwide”. An increasing amount of food production is geared towards feeding livestock, as people like to eat more meat as they grow more affluent.
The scientists also called for governments to create “comprehensive, shared, integrated information systems” on agriculture. But they said that the demands of an increasing global population for more food could be met without environmental harm, if farming methods were reformed and farmers educated in sustainable techniques.

UN Calls for Doubling Food Production
July 5, 2011
Voice of America
The United Nations warns the world’s farmers will have to double the amount of food they produce to keep up with a rapidly growing population.
The U.N.’s latest World Economic and Social Survey, released Tuesday, says global food production will need to jump by 70 to 100 percent by 2050 to feed an anticipated 9 billion people.
The report says such a dramatic increase in food production will only happen if countries make a concerted effort to use production methods that are much less harmful to the environment. It says without making major changes, food production will suffer as a result of climate change and pollution.
The U.N. report says the world will have to invest $1.9 trillion a year—about 3 percent of the total global economic output—to boost food production enough to eradicate hunger without doing further damage to the environment.The United Nations warns the world’s farmers will have to double the amount of food they produce to keep up with a rapidly growing population.
The U.N.’s latest World Economic and Social Survey (pdf), released Tuesday, says global food production will need to jump by 70 to 100 percent by 2050 to feed an anticipated 9 billion people.
The report says such a dramatic increase in food production will only happen if countries make a concerted effort to use production methods that are much less harmful to the environment. It says without making major changes, food production will suffer as a result of climate change and pollution.
The U.N. report says the world will have to invest $1.9 trillion a year—about 3 percent of the total global economic output—to boost food production enough to eradicate hunger without doing further damage to the environment.

Industrial Agriculture
Tom Philpott
March 10, 2011
Debunking the stubborn myth that only industrial ag can “feed the world.”
Hold the agrichemicals: Organic ag could keep markets brimming with food. I’ve written about it once already, but I want to return to The Economist’s recent special series about how industrial agriculture is the true and only way to feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit the world by 2050. The framing, I think, is extremely interesting.

Sustainable Farming Can Feed the World?
Mark Bittman
March 8, 2011
The oldest and most common dig against organic agriculture is that it cannot feed the world’s citizens; this, however, is a supposition, not a fact. And industrial agriculture isn’t working perfectly, either: the global food price index is at a record high, and our agricultural system is wreaking havoc with the health not only of humans but of the earth. There are around a billion undernourished people; we can also thank the current system for the billion who are overweight or obese.

The Vertical Farm
By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth’s population will reside in urban centers. Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?

Growing Skyscrapers: The Rise of Vertical Farms
Growing crops in city skyscrapers would use less water and fossil fuel than outdoor farming, eliminate agricultural runoff, and provide fresh food
Dickson Despommier
November 16, 2009
Together the world’s 6.8 billion people use land equal in size to South America to grow food and raise livestock—an astounding agricultural footprint. And demographers predict the planet will host 9.5 billion people by 2050. Because each of us requires a minimum of 1,500 calories a day, civilization will have to cultivate another Brazil’s worth of land—2.1 billion acres—if farming continues to be practiced as it is today. That much new, arable earth simply does not exist.

Food production decreased due to climate change, topsoil loss through erosion, salination, urbanization, desertification, aquifer depletion, over fishing,

Planet Likely to Become Increasingly Hostile to Agriculture.
Douglas Fischer
December 6, 2011
Drought frequency is expected to triple in the next 100 years. The resulting variability and stress for farmers could prove regionally disabling without new policy.

The food bubble is going to pop.
Gwynne Dyer
August 8, 2011
Between April 2010 and April 2011, the average world price of grain soared by 71 per cent: not a very big deal for people in rich countries who spend less than 10 per cent of their incomes on food, but a catastrophe for poor people who already spend more than half their money just to keep their families fed.

Rising Temperatures Melting Away Global Food Security
Lester R. Brown
July 6, 2011
Heat waves clearly can destroy crop harvests. The world saw high heat decimate Russian wheat in 2010. Crop ecologists have found that each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum can reduce grain harvests by 10 percent. But the indirect effects of higher temperatures on our food supply are no less serious. Rising temperatures are already melting the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Recent studies indicate that a combination of melting ice sheets and glaciers, plus the thermal expansion of the ocean as it warms, could raise sea level by up to 6 feet during this century. Yet even a 3-foot rise in sea level would sharply reduce the rice harvest in Asia, a region home to over half the world’s people that grows 90 percent of the world’s rice. It would inundate half the riceland in Bangladesh and submerge part of the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam. Viet Nam, second only to Thailand as a rice exporter, could lose its exportable rice surplus. This would leave the 20 or so countries that import rice from Viet Nam looking elsewhere. Numerous other rice-growing river deltas in Asia would be submerged in varying degrees.

Climate to wreak havoc on food supply
Jennifer Carpenter
June 2, 2011
Some areas in the tropics face famine because of failing food production, an international research group says. The Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) predicts large parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be worst affected. Its report points out that hundreds of millions of people in these regions are already experiencing a food crisis.

Climate change has spurred food prices: Study
May 7, 2011
Climate change cut global wheat and corn output by more than 3% over the past three decades compared to growth projections without a rise in temperatures, a study found on Friday.
The impacts translated into up to 20% higher average commodity prices, before accounting for other factors, according to the paper published in the journal Science.

The Battle Ahead
Lester Brown
April 24, 2011
Long after the political uprisings in the Middle East have subsided, many underlying challenges that are not now in the news will remain. Prominent among these are rapid population growth, spreading water shortages, and growing food insecurity.
In some countries grain production is now falling as aquifers—underground water-bearing rocks—are depleted.
Thus in the Arab Middle East, where populations are growing fast, the world is seeing the first collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed, and less irrigation water with which to feed them.

World’s Reef Fishes Tussling With Human Overpopulation
April 5, 2011
“Coral reefs provide a range of critical goods and services to humanity—everything from nutrient cycling to food production to coast protection to economic revenues through tourism,” says Camilo Mora at Dalhousie University and lead researcher of the study. “Yet the complex nature and large-scale distribution of coral reefs is challenging scientists to understand if this natural ecosystem will continue working to deliver goods and services given the ongoing loss of biodiversity in coral reefs.”

Increased fertilizer use and decreased crop yield.
Jeremy Grantham
April 2011
Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever.
Now, despite a massive increase in fertilizer use, the growth in crop yields per acre has declined from 3.5% in the 1960s to 1.2% today.

No easy fix
The Economist
February 24, 2011
Simply using more of everything to produce more food will not work
By 2030, on most estimates, farmers will need 45% more water. They won’t get it. Cities are the second-largest users of water, and those in the emerging world are growing exponentially. They already account for half the world’s population, a share that will rise to 70% by 2050. In any dispute between cities and farmers, governments are likely to side with cities. Agriculture’s share of the world’s water used to be 90%, so it has already fallen a long way. It will surely decline further....
When the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) tried to work out the impacts of climate change on the main cereal crops, almost all its results suggested that yields in 2050 are likely to be lower than they were in 2000, sometimes much lower. Almost half the forecasts showed yield reductions of 9-18% by 2050. One came up with a drop in rainfed-maize yields of 30%.

How much is enough?
The Economist
February 24, 2011
The answer is less straightforward than it seems
Overall, the FAO reckons, demand for food will rise about 70% in the 44 years from 2006 to 2050, more than twice as much as demand for cereals. But that is still less than half as much as the rise in food production in the 44 years from 1962 to 2006. So according to the FAO’s Kostas Stamoulis, producing enough food to feed the world in the next four decades should be easier than in the previous four.
Should be, but probably won’t be. Increasing food supplies by 70% in the next 40 years may prove harder than it was to raise them by 150% in the previous 40. The main reason: problems with yields. Yield—tonnes per hectare, bushels per acre or whatever—is the traditional gauge of agriculture’s performance. And the growth in yields has been slowing down, from about 3% a year for staple crops in the 1960s to around 1% now.

The 9 billion-people question
The Economist
February 24, 2011
The world’s population will grow from almost 7 billion now to over 9 billion in 2050. John Parker asks if there will be enough food to go round
...But the Broadbalk field shows something else. Chart 1 tracks its yields from the start, showing how the three different kinds of wheat farming—African, Green Revolution and modern—have diverged, sometimes quite suddenly: in the 1960s with the introduction of new herbicides for Green Revolution wheat, and in the 1980s with new fungicides and semi-dwarf varieties. Worryingly, though, in the past 15 years the yields of the most productive varieties of wheat in Broadbalk have begun to level out or even fall.

Earth economist: The food bubble is about to burst
Alison George
February 10, 2011
We’re fast draining the fresh water resources our farms rely on, warns Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute
What is a food bubble? That’s when food production is inflated through the unsustainable use of water and land. It’s the water bubble we need to worry about now. The World Bank says that 15 per cent of Indians (175 million people) are fed by grain produced through overpumping - when water is pumped out of aquifers faster than they can be replenished. In China, the figure could be 130 million.

Egypt and Tunisia usher in the new era of global food revolutions
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
January 30, 2011
Political risk has returned with a vengeance. The first food revolutions of our Malthusian era have exposed the weak grip of authoritarian regimes in poor countries that import grain, whether in North Africa today or parts of Asia tomorrow...
The deeper causes are well-known: an annual rise in global population by 73m; the “exhaustion” of the Green Revolution as the gains in crop yields fade, to cite the World Bank; diet shifts in Asia as the rising middle class switch to animal-protein diets, requiring 3-5 kilos of grain feed for every kilo of meat produced; the biofuel mandates that have diverted a third of the US corn crop into ethanol for cars.
Add the loss of farmland to Asia’s urban sprawl, and the depletion of the non-renewable acquivers for irrigation of North China’s plains, and the geopolitics of global food supply starts to look neuralgic.

China’s ability to feed its people questioned by UN expert
Jonathan Watts in Beijing
December 23, 2010
Shrinking arable land making it harder to maintain agricultural output, says Olivier De Schutter, as food prices rise in China... He noted that 37% of the nation’s territory was degraded and 8.2m hectares (20.7m acres) of arable land has been lost since 1997 to cities, industrial parks, natural disasters and forestry programmes....
In the past year, rice has gone up by 13%, wheat by 9%, chicken by 17%, pork by 13% and eggs by 30%.

Food security, farming, and climate change to 2050
International Food Policy Research Institute
Scenarios, results, policy options
As the global population grows and incomes in poor countries rise, so too, will the demand for food, placing additional pressure on sustainable food production. Climate change adds a further challenge, as changes in temperature and precipitation threaten agricultural productivity and the capacity to feed the world’s population. This study assesses how serious the danger to food security might be and suggests some steps policymakers can take to remedy the situation.
Article based on above report:
Feeding a larger population on a warmer planet
Janeen Madan
Dec 10, 2010

Climate Change: Plankton In Big Decline, Foundation Of Ocean’s Food Web
Seth Borenstein
July 28, 2010
Despite their tiny size, plant plankton found in the world's oceans are crucial to much of life on Earth. They are the foundation of the bountiful marine food web, produce half the world's oxygen and suck up harmful carbon dioxide. And they are declining sharply. Worldwide phytoplankton levels are down 40 percent since the 1950s, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. The likely cause is global warming, which makes it hard for the plant plankton to get vital nutrients, researchers say.

Africa’s population boom devours advances
Tim Giannuzzi
November 26, 2009
The world’s poorest continent passed a milestone this year, but rather like a chronically sick person marking time in hospital, there was nothing to celebrate, for Africans or anyone else, either.
According to the United Nations Population Fund’s recently released State of the World Report, Africa this year passed the one billion mark in population.

Rethinking Food Production for a World of Eight Billion
Lester R. Brown
July 7, 2009
Farmers are faced with shrinking supplies of irrigation water, a diminishing response to additional fertilizer use, rising temperatures from global warming, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, rising fuel costs, and a dwindling backlog of yield-raising technologies. At the same time, they also face fast-growing demand for farm products from the annual addition of 79 million people a year, the desire of some 3 billion people to consume more livestock products, and the millions of motorists turning to crop-based fuels to supplement tightening supplies of gasoline and diesel fuel. Farmers and agronomists are now being thoroughly challenged.

Food security and price increases due to bio-fuels, rising energy costs, growing population

Rising food prices increase squeeze on poor: Oxfam
May 31, 2011
The price of key crops could rise by up to 180%
Rising food prices are tightening the squeeze on populations already struggling to buy adequate food, demanding radical reform of the global food system, Oxfam has warned.
However, the report’s emphasis on the importance of small farmers was challenged by Nicola Horlick, a leading British investment fund manager who has invested in farmland in Brazil, in a debate with Ms Stocking on the BBC’s Today programme.
She said large mechanised farms still provided some job opportunities for local workers and created spin-off industries. “You cannot rely on a whole lot of smallholders to feed the world—it’s not going to work,” she said. “It is really important in my view that we have more investment going into farmland. There are huge tracts of farmland... that aren’t being farmed.” She said the market worked because shortages increased potential profits from investing in food, which would in time being [bring] supply and demand back into balance.

The New Geopolitics of Food
Lester R. Brown
May/June 2011
From the Middle East to Madagascar, high prices are spawning land grabs and ousting dictators. Welcome to the 21st-century food wars.
“This is not merely a story about the booming demand for food. Everything from falling water tables to eroding soils and the consequences of global warming means that the world’s food supply is unlikely to keep up with our collectively growing appetites.
“...If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand.”

World One Poor Harvest Away From Chaos
Lester R. Brown
February 15, 2011
In early January, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its Food Price Index had reached an all-time high in December, exceeding the previous record set during the 2007-08 price surge. Even more alarming, on February 3rd, the FAO announced that the December record had been broken in January as prices climbed an additional 3 percent.

Food prices at dangerous levels, says World Bank
February 15, 2011
Food prices are close to record levels according to the World Bank’s latest assessment
The World Bank says food prices are at “dangerous levels” and have pushed 44 million more people into poverty since last June [2010].

How biofuels contribute to the food crisis
Tim Searchinger
February 11, 2011
Each year, the world demands more grain, and this year the world’s farms will not produce it. World food prices have surged above the food crisis levels of 2008. Millions more people will be malnourished, and hundreds of millions who are already hungry will eat less or give up other necessities. Food riots have started again.
Nearly all assessments of the 2008 food crisis assigned biofuels a meaningful role...

Reports from the UN and the World Bank put the blame on overpopulation and climate
January 25, 2011
There may be another problem too, but it is hardly surprising that world leaders should overlook it. Since the 1950s, chronic underinvestment in agriculture has been considered a normal feature of a healthy, growing economy. A successful farm policy is one that delivers cheap food to urban consumers, whatever the cost at the producing end.

UN food agency: higher food prices likely
UN agency warns of further food prices spikes next year without production increase November 17, 2010
ROME (AP)—Prices of wheat and other staples have risen “alarmingly” over the past year, a U.N. report said Wednesday, acknowledging fears of a repeat of the 2008 food crisis when a spike in the price of bread led to deadly riots in some countries.
Further increases were likely unless production of major food crops increases significantly in 2011, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said, warning that international food import bills could pass the $1 trillion dollar mark in 2010.

Political and social consequences

Kenyan farmers fighting over scarce land.
Al Jazeera
Dec 2, 2011
Conflicts frequently erupt over grazing land and water as droughts take their toll. [video]

What Lies behind Egypt’s Problems? How do They Affect Others?
January 29, 2011
At least part of Egypt’s problem is the fact that in the past the government has threatened to reduce food subsidies. Now it is planning to hold food subsidies level and raise energy subsidies, but it is not clear that the dollar amount of subsidy will be enough. The government is taking steps to make food and energy affordable for most, but there is worry that the steps being taken will not be enough. (Includes graphs of energy and food production/consumption/export)

Algerian riots resume over food prices
January 7, 2011
Police deployed around mosques and football matches suspended amid protests over food prices and unemployment.

Land Rights and the Rush for Land
Findings of the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project
Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor

African Farmers Displaced as Investors Move In
Neil MacFarquharf
December 21, 2010
Soumouni, Mali—The half-dozen strangers who descended on this remote West African village brought its hand-to-mouth farmers alarming news: their humble fields, tilled from one generation to the next, were now controlled by Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the farmers would all have to leave.

Australia should look to its food security, before all the farm is sold
Paul Myers
October 14, 2010
Australia is rapidly losing control of its food resources. The purchase of AWB - the former Australian Wheat Board - by the Canadian company Agrium, now approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board, is the tip of an iceberg where large segments of food processing and marketing have been sold offshore.
Production is now the last bastion of predominantly local ownership in the food chain. But with increasing interest by foreign companies - and governments, including China’s - quality farmland is also a target.
In short, Australians are in danger of becoming servants, not masters, of their own food resources.

Land Grab? (pdf)
The Race for the World’s Farmland
Edited By Michael Kugelman and Susan L. Levenstein
2009 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.

Solutions: increasing supply, social and economic justice, reducing waste, and decreasing demand

Human-Made Photosynthesis to Revolutionize Food and Energy Production
February 17, 2012
Improving natural photosynthesis to make new fuels and boost crop production ... could see us one step closer to bottling the sun's energy or turbocharging plants to produce bumper crops.
Ultimately, success in this research could allow the development of a sustainable carbon neutral economy arresting the increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning.

The Institute for Food and Development Policy—Food First
Seeks to eliminate the social injustices that cause hunger. “...decades of skewed agricultural policies, inequitable trade, and unsustainable development have thrown the world’s food systems into a volatile, boom and bust cycle and widened the gap between affluence and poverty... In fact, the world’s recurrent food crises are making a handful of investors and multinational corporations very rich—even as they devastate the poor and put the rest of the planet at severe environmental and economic risk.”
One of their “12 Myths About Hunger” is that it’s a result of too many people.
Reality: Birth rates are falling rapidly worldwide... Although rapid population growth remains a serious concern in many countries, nowhere does population density explain hunger. For every Bangladesh, a densely populated and hungry country, we find a Nigeria, Brazil or Bolivia, where abundant food resources coexist with hunger. Or we find a country like the Netherlands, where very little land per person has not prevented it from eliminating hunger and becoming a net exporter of food. Rapid population growth is not the root cause of hunger. Like hunger itself, it results from underlying inequities that deprive people, especially poor women, of economic opportunity and security. Rapid population growth and hunger are endemic to societies where land ownership, jobs, education, health care, and old age security are beyond the reach of most people. Those Third World societies with dramatically successful early and rapid reductions of population growth rates... ­prove that the lives of the poor, especially poor women, must improve before they can choose to have fewer children.

Horn of Africa shows family planning need—UN agency
Mark John
Aug 2, 2011
DAKAR (Reuters) - The Horn of Africa food crisis shows the need to provide the world’s poor with better access to family planning as part of efforts to prevent future tragedies, the head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said. The United Nations has declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia, where 3.7 million are going hungry, with over 12 million people now in need of urgent aid throughout areas including northern Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Despite regular food shortages and high infant mortality, the region’s population has more than doubled since it was hit by major droughts in 1974, spurred by factors such as limited contraception use and a tradition of large families. While stressing the root cause of the crisis was the recent rain failures, UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin said it highlighted the plight of those living in parts of the world where the land struggles to support human life. “We need to improve food production ... and to work with member states to ensure women and particularly young girls have access to education, including sexual education, and access to health services and reproductive health services including family planning,” Osotimehin told Reuters in a telephone interview.

More than 1 billion tons of food lost or wasted every year, UN-backed report finds
May 11, 2011
About a third of all the food produced for human consumption each year—or roughly 1.3 billion tons—is lost or wasted...
Consumers and retailers in industrialized countries waste an estimated 222 million [metric?] tons of food each year, mostly by throwing away perfectly edible food. Fruits and vegetables have the highest rates of wastage.
The average consumer in Europe and North America wastes 95 to 115 kilograms [210-254 lbs] of food a year, while his or her counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia or South-East Asia wastes only six to 11 kilograms [13-24 lbs] of food.
Report (pdf) breaks down where the waste occurs in each region for several commodities. [Doesn't include uses of wasted food for livestock feed or compost]

An overview of global food losses and waste
Future Directions International
November 25, 2011
[Draws from UN-backed report above]

A prospect of plenty
February 24, 2011
For the first time in history, the whole of mankind may get enough to eat.
This special report has argued that over the next 40 years farmers will find it harder to produce enough for everyone because of constraints on land, water and fertilisers. There is some room for expansion onto virgin land, but not much. There is less water because of competition from fast-growing cities. Returns on fertiliser use are diminishing. And government policies that boost biofuels and restrict trade will get in the way.
But though not easy, it should be perfectly possible to feed 9 billion people by 2050. A start has been made to boosting yields and reducing harvest losses in countries that lag behind, notably in Africa.

Restoring Food Security for All Takes Action on Many Fronts
Lester R. Brown
February 2, 2011
Today there are three sources of growing demand for food: population growth; rising affluence and the associated jump in meat, milk, and egg consumption; and the use of grain to produce fuel for cars...
On the supply side of the food equation, several trends are making it more difficult to expand production rapidly enough to keep up with demand. These include soil erosion, aquifer depletion, more frequent crop-shrinking heat waves, melting ice sheets, melting mountain glaciers, and the diversion of irrigation water to cities.
Farmers are also losing cropland to nonfarm uses. Cars compete with people not only for the grain supply but also for the cropland itself. The United States, for example, has paved an area for cars larger than the state of Georgia. Every five cars added to the U.S. fleet means another acre of land will be paved over—the equivalent of a football field...
One simple way to improve food security is for the United States to eliminate the fuel ethanol subsidy and abolish the mandates that are driving the conversion of grain into fuel. This would help stabilize grain prices and buy some time in which to reverse the environmental and demographic trends that are undermining our future. It would also help relax the political tensions over food security that have emerged within importing countries. And finally, we all have a role to play as individuals. Whether we decide to bike, bus, or drive to work will affect carbon emissions, climate change, and food security. The size of the car we drive to the supermarket and its effect on climate may indirectly affect the size of the bill at the supermarket checkout counter. At the family level, we need to hold the line at two children. And if we are living high on the food chain, we can eat less grain-intensive livestock products, improving our health while helping to stabilize climate. Food security is something in which we all have a stake—and a responsibility.

Do we need GM to feed the world? It’s not as simple as it seems.
Geoffrey Lean
January 26, 2011
As the world’s population heads towards 9 billion and the amount of available cropland shrinks as cities spread and soil is eroded away, yields clearly have to be increased. And what better way could there be of doing so than to use a technology capable of altering the genetic structure of a plant to make it produce more?
And yet, the world’s biggest ever agricultural study—the work of 400 scientists and 60 governments, headed by Dr Bob Watson, now Chief Scientist at Department of the Environment, Food and Agriculture—concluded that GM was not the simple answer to poverty. In truth, it could even do more harm than good.
For a start there is the inconvenient truth that it is far from clear that genetic modification does increase yields. The biotech industry cites evidence to support its insistence that it does, but other studies actually show a decrease. One, at the University of Nebraska, for example, revealed that five different GM soyas produced an average of 6.7 per cent less than their closest unmodified relatives, and ten per cent less than the most productive conventional soyas available at the time.

2.4 billion extra people, no more land: how will we feed the world in 2050?
Steve Connor reveals how scientists propose a major policy shift to tackle one of the great challenges of the 21st century.
January 22, 2011
Like the UK’s Foresight report, the French study found there is no overwhelming obstacle to feeding a global population of 9.2 billion people, provided food yields are boosted, waste is cut both after harvesting and in the kitchen, and food distribution is improved.
However, the French study also suggested there are two possible routes to feeding the world. One involves unsustainable improvements in crop yields which do not take into account the detrimental impact on the environment, while the other is a sustainable route which will involve people in the developed world consuming less and decreasing their average food intake.

Genetically modified crops are the key to human survival
January 22, 2011
Sir John Beddington, “an expert in population biology,” argues that moves to block GM crops on moral grounds are no longer sustainable. “This report was set up to find out if we can feed nine billion people sustainably, healthily and equitably. We can, but it will take many different approaches to crack the problem.” Critical approaches, he notes, are “development of proper sustainability, protecting fish stocks and changes to patterns of consumption, was also critical.” [Avoiding a two-billion person increase in the first place is a separate issue].

Fifty Years of Progress
In the late 1950s around a billion people—about one-third of the world’s population—were estimated to go hungry every day. Famines were threatening millions in Asia and Africa in particular, and prospects for feeding the world’s booming population looked bleak.
In response to this alarming picture, scientists, policymakers, farmers, and concerned individuals initiated a concerted push to boost agricultural production and productivity in developing countries. Developing and industrialized countries, together with development agencies and civil society organizations, pursued a range of interventions in agriculture: they applied modern science to crop and livestock production, constructed irrigation systems, developed new cultivation practices to conserve natural resources, introduced policies to encourage farmers to grow and sell more food, and launched many other programs in agricultural development. The result? About one billion people now go hungry every day....
While the causes of chronic hunger and persistent malnutrition are complex, the experiences of the past 50 years show that the solutions are by no means beyond our reach. But what do we really know about what works in agricultural development, and where, when, and why some interventions succeed? Which policies, programs, and investments in agricultural development can substantially reduce hunger and malnutrition? And which of these interventions can do so within a changing global landscape characterized by growing natural resource scarcities, climate change, global market volatility, and major health and demographic changes?

Improving Food Security by Strategically Reducing Grain Demand
Lester R. Brown
November 9, 2010
After several decades of rapid rise in world grain yields, it is now becoming more difficult to raise land productivity fast enough to keep up with the demands of a growing, increasingly affluent, population. From 1950 to 1990, world grainland productivity increased by 2.2 percent per year, but from 1990 until 2009 it went up by only 1.3 percent annually. Despite some impressive local advances, the global loss of momentum in expanding food production is forcing us to think more seriously about reducing demand by stabilizing population, moving down the food chain, and reducing the use of grain to fuel cars.

Rethinking Food Production for a World of Eight Billion
Lester R. Brown
July 7, 2009
(also linked from “Food production decreased” above)
Despite local advances, the overall loss of momentum in expanding food production is unmistakable. It will force us to think more seriously about stabilizing population, moving down the food chain, and using the existing harvest more productively. Achieving an acceptable worldwide balance between food and people may now depend on stabilizing population as soon as possible, reducing the unhealthily high consumption of animal products among the affluent, and restricting the conversion of food crops to automotive fuels. It also calls for a concerted effort to raise water use productivity, similar to the gains achieved for land use, and to stabilize climate to avoid crop-withering temperatures and more frequent droughts. These efforts combined can help put us on the path to ensuring enough food for all.

Seawater holds key to future food
Julian Siddle
December 4, 2008
Growing crops in salt water is becoming necessary to overcome shortages of fresh water, say researchers writing in the journal Science. They suggest the domestication of wild plants that grow in salty conditions could help reduce global food shortages. Only 1% of the Earth’s water is freshwater. Around the world, many agricultural areas are becoming less productive as salt levels in water supplies increase.
“Salinisation is irreversible,” says Professor Jelte Rozema from the department of systems ecology at the Free University, Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. “Sooner or later mankind has to accept the world is becoming more saline.”

Links to resources about agricultural production

Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN

Food prices index from Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN

Sustainable agriculture organizations

Agriculture organizations

United States Agricultural Information Network

A humorous attempt to show that feeding billions more of us won’t be a problem: “Food: There’s Lots of it.”