Human Stories

Why Producing More Food Doesn’t Mean Less Hunger

Our population hit the 8 billion mark in November 2022 and is projected to top 10 billion by 2050. More than 800 million people already experience hunger, so how will we feed the extra mouths?

Do we produce enough food?

Global agricultural systems produce 4 million metric tonnes of food each year. If the food were equitably distributed, this would feed an extra one billion people.1 But while we already produce enough food for more people than currently live on Earth, it doesn’t necessarily mean we will be able to feed a growing population.1

That’s because the idea that we don’t need to produce more food by 2050 relies on a series of assumptions: that we stop almost all consumption of meat and milk, halve food loss and waste, and eliminate disparities in consumption.2 But the realistic likelihood of these assumptions becoming reality in just a few short decades is low.

Even a 30% reduction in ruminant meat demand relative to expected demand in 2050 is considered “highly ambitious”.2 Putting all these conditions together, therefore, seems “unrealistic”, according to Tim Searchinger, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment at Princeton, and Senior Fellow and Technical Director of the Food Program at the World Resources Institute.

Searchinger told FoodUnfolded that we will need to produce more food to achieve global food security for our growing population in the coming years. In fact, a World Resource Institute study with the UN and the World Bank estimated that farmers would have to produce 56% more food calories by 2050, compared to 2009, to meet the needs of the world’s growing population.2 But we need to do this while creating opportunities for the rural poor, protecting natural habitats and reducing greenhouse gases - not an easy task.

If we’re going to rise to the massive challenge of 56% more food calories within reasonable ecological limits, the UN says that we need to increase our yields as well as reduce food waste and shift to more sustainable diets. For example, we can choose to eat more foods rich in nutrients and calories, but take less space and resources to grow. For many, this will include eating fewer animal products, which, depending on how they are raised, can be particularly resource-intensive.

As well as looking at how we produce calories, we must also consider how we distribute them. For example, we need to reduce food loss and resolve inequalities in purchasing power.2

Read more about the impacts of animal agriculture - both good and bad

We produce enough food, so why do people still go hungry?

The World Health Organisation estimates that as many as 828 million people were affected by hunger in 2021, up by nearly 50 million from 2020.3,4 Adding to the complexity of this issue, at the same time, more than 2 billion people are living with overweight or obesity.5,6

Even if we produce enough food to feed the population, many people still go hungry because of inefficient distribution. After all, much of the world’s food is eaten far from where it is produced. More than 80% of the global population is, at least to some extent, reliant on food imports, and some countries are 100% dependent on imports for staple foods such as rice, wheat, corn and soy.7,8

Because of the interconnected nature of global supply chains, local food prices can be affected by external shocks like war or famine on the other side of the world. For example, reduced crop yields can cause global price spikes in years of drought. This often means the poorest consumers can no longer purchase the product, resulting in food inequalities tied to purchasing power. Meanwhile, richer countries aren’t affected because most people can afford to pay more for their food.

Searchinger, who lives in the US, explained: “I can outcompete the poor for food. If the price goes up, I don’t consume less; I just pay a little bit more money. It’s the poor who bear the brunt, and this leads to hunger.”

Price rises reduce the amount and type of food accessible to the poorest people, and often, what is left is less nutritious. This is because growing foods such as fruit, vegetables and meat require a lot more land, water and synthetic inputs than basic cereal or grains. Extra expenses in production are pushed onto the consumer, meaning that the most nutritious food becomes too costly for the poorest people.

Around 60% of all calories consumed globally come from just four crops: rice, wheat, corn and soy. As a result, nearly one in three people suffer from some kind of malnutrition.9

If we solved the problem of distribution, would everyone eat well?

Even when nutritionally well-rounded food is in the right place, we’re still wasting or losing 1.3 billion tonnes of produce globally every year, equivalent to a third of the total food produced globally each year.10

Food that is not eaten because it goes bad or is destroyed because of issues in production, storage, processing or distribution is counted as food loss.11 Around 13% of food produced globally yearly is lost between harvest and retail.13

Food waste is the discarding of edible foods by consumers or retail establishments, including restaurants and shops.11 Around 17% of the food produced globally is wasted - 11% is discarded from households, 5% from food services and 2% from retail.10,14 Together, food loss and waste result in around 30% of the food we produce globally every year not getting eaten.

Read about the plight of “ugly” fruits and vegetables

The issue of food waste and loss threatens the viability and long-term sustainability of global food systems, Dr Liz Goodwin, Senior Fellow and Director of Food Loss and Waste at the World Resources Institute, told FoodUnfolded.

“It’s very hard to see how you could have a sustainable food system when you’re losing or wasting a third of the food you produce, and if we carry on doing the same thing, the amount of food waste could double by 2050.”

Dr Goodwin added that without tackling the problem of food loss and waste, “we won’t reach the greenhouse gas emission targets in the Paris Agreement.” Water, land, energy, labour, and money used in food production, as well as the food itself, are wasted when food is not eaten. Moreover, uneaten food that breaks down in landfills releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

Food that is never eaten results in the waste of 250km3 of water annually - equivalent to three times the volume of Lake Geneva, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.20

How will climate change affect our need to produce more food?

Climate change and environmental degradation are going to make the problem of food availability worse.20 Yields will be reduced as a result of frequent extreme climatic events such as drought, floods, storms and heatwaves in the coming years.15

For example, up to 80% of crops worldwide are rain-fed.15 This means farmers rely on fairly predictable year-round precipitation patterns to grow their produce. More crops will die or be irreversibly damaged due to changes in rainfall as droughts and extreme precipitation become more common.

Food production systems will have to adapt to the changing climate in order to keep pace with the growing demand for food, Dr Ivica Petrikova, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University, told FoodUnfolded.

“We’ll need solutions that are not so susceptible to climate change. We will need to look at other options for growing food, like vertical growing in fully controlled climate conditions,” Dr Petrikova said. But high-tech solutions aren’t the only way forward; we will also need to return to more native crop varieties which are resilient to pests and diseases.

We can also shift to a more sustainable diet. This largely depends on where you live, as this directly impacts which foods are in season. However, eating sustainably broadly includes eating more seasonal produce, reducing meat and dairy intake and eating more beans and pulses.

Food gaps resulting from extreme climatic events or shock events, such as wars, are often plugged with development and humanitarian aid. However, Dr Petrikova warned that while “food aid in emergencies can help prevent deaths from hunger in the short term, it doesn’t have the potential to really address food insecurity globally.”

Development aid is similarly not a long-term solution, Dr Petrikova added. “Development aid doesn’t have much of an impact on food security. Food insecurity is often connected to structure or political issues, and development aid doesn’t do much about those.”

Find out how farmers are growing ancient millet to deal with Climate Change in India

What’s the solution?

If we are going to feed a growing population, we need to both produce more food and make better use of what we already produce.

When asked about the solution, Dr Goodwin said, “There’s no silver bullet to tackling food insecurity. We need a mixture of technological, managerial, and behavioural changes to address the root causes of the problem.”

A World Resources Institute study listed five steps towards a sustainable food future.2

  1. Slow down growth in demand for food and other agricultural products. This includes reducing food loss and waste and shifting to healthier and more sustainable diets.
  2. Increase food production without expanding agricultural land. This involves increasing livestock, pasture and crop productivity and better-managing soil and water demands while adapting to climate warming and shock events.
  3. Protect and restore natural ecosystems. Productivity increases should not come at the expense of natural ecosystems. Areas with low environmental opportunity costs should be the new land used for production.
  4. Increase fish supply by improving the management of wild fisheries and increasing the productivity of aquaculture.
  5. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production. This involves improving manure management and better use of fertilisers while focusing on realistic options for carbon sequestration in soils.

There is no one answer to feeding the world a sustainable and healthy diet. But in the face of the climate crisis and a growing population, we need to get serious about finding viable and scalable solutions.

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