To Alleviate World Hunger, Less is More

In an article in the Guardian, Peter Mehett, policy director for the Soil Association, says that “the ‘big fat lie’ of needing to double global food production by 2050 has dominated policy and media discussions of food and farming, making it increasingly difficult for advocates of sustainable farming methods to convince people we can actually feed the world without more damage to the environment and animal welfare.”

To alleviate global hunger, simply producing more food isn’t enough. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

A recent report from the Soil Association suggests that instead of producing more food, the best way to ensure that everyone in the world gets enough to eat is through changing what kind of food is produced and improving distribution of food.

The Soil Association’s report zeroes in on two main percentages that are commonly used to argue for more food production. Many agricultural experts have stated again and again that to keep up with population growth, global food production will need to increase by 50 percent by 2030 and by 100 percent by 2050. But this number, says the Soil Association, has been exaggerated. The original source, a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, World Agriculture: Toward 2030/2050, actually states that food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050. Nowhere does it state that global food production needs to double by 2050 to meet demand. Though, if post-harvest food losses are taking into account, even that number may be inaccurate. Recent estimates suggest that if low-income countries lose, on average, 15 percent of their grain after harvest then their post-harvest loss amounts to 150 million tonnes of cereals or six times the amount that the FAO says would be needed to feed the over 1 billion people hungry in the world.

So why would these exaggerated and unsubstantiated percentages become so widely used and quoted? The Soil Association believes that it is, at least in part, in order to justify the expansion of GM crops and the expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides that go along with intensive agriculture. And expansion of industrial agriculture, argues the Soil Association will do more harm than good. The report outlines a number of the main problems with the argument that food production simply needs to be increased, including the following:

  • Simply exporting the developed world’s diet is already leading to health and obesity problems worldwide
  • Access to food, distribution of food and cost of food are just as important as food production in alleviating hunger
  • Projections assume that the developing world will continue to import staple foods as well as meat and dairy without taking into consideration how local food production might better improve food security
  • Increasing meat and dairy production on the large scale could lead to increases in methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more powerful than CO2

The Soil Association is calling for a more nuanced approach to address global hunger, one that takes into consideration things like access to food, nutritional value of food available, the environmental impact of food production and food prices. “Food and farming policy should be based on a strategy that aims to ensure that no one in the world is going hungry by 2050, not a future of continuing hunger, growing diet-related ill-health and huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions from livestock,” concludes the report.

In other words, to alleviate global hunger, simply producing more food isn’t enough. Instead, it is the quality of food production and food distribution that will equal more accessible food for all.

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