Can we feed the world? Will we?

I’m in Melbourne for the conference of the Australian Agricultural & Resource Economics Society (in fact, I’m currently President-elect of the Society[1]. There have been a couple of great papers on long-term food supply from Phil Pardey and Tom Hertel. So, this seems like a good idea to write down some thoughts about (what ought to be, at any rate) the central issue of agricultural economics – whether the global food system can produce enough food for the world and deliver it to those who need it. I’m hoping to refine this in response to comments – I’ll mark major changes but will otherwise adjust as I go.

Can we feed the world? Will we?

The world’s population is rapidly approaching 7 billion, of whom around 1 billion regularly go hungry. UN projections suggest that the world population is likely to peak at around 9 billion in 2050 (though this number could be in a range from 8 to 10 billion). So, if nothing else changes then to feed those currently hungry and supply the current average to the extra 2 billion or so, we would need to increase global food output by 50 per cent over the next 40 years. The good news is that, based on 20th century experience, that ought not to be hard. The required rate of growth of output is 1 per cent a year, while the rate of multifactor productivity growth in agriculture has been about 2 per cent a year. [2] So, if historical rates of productivity growth continue, and other demands were unchanged, the problem of feeding the world can be solved with our existing arable land and with a continued decline in the number of people working in agriculture.
That was the good news.

The bad news comes in two parts.

First, there are a lot of reasons to think that productivity growth may have slowed, and is likely to slow further. These include
* Public R&D efforts have declined, and the private sector hasn’t been an adequate substitute. GM crops (largely the product of private companies) have some benefits, but haven’t yet been the panacea that is sometimes claim
* Some agricultural systems (most fisheries, agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of irrigation) have been operated on an unsustainable basis
* Energy is a significant input (though not as important as is sometimes supposed) and energy costs are bound to rise
* Efforts to mitigate climate change may reduce output and/or productivity
* Climate change will have a net adverse effect on productivity, particularly if warming exceeds 2 degrees

The second part of the bad news is that there will be more demand growth mainly from:

* People in middle-income countries who want to eat more meat and fruit/vegetables and less rice and wheat
* Biofuels either derived from food products or competing with agriculture for land

Taken together, these problems make the task of feeding the world much more difficult, but not impossible. To list some of the obvious responses
* The decline in public R&D spending can and should be reversed, and there is plenty of room for more private efforts such as those of the Gates Foundation – the sums involved are tiny relative to total world income
* Huge improvements are possible in Africa from better education, communications, transport, adoption of modern practices and technology, along with some focused R& D efforts. The problems of irrigated agriculture are fixable, as my work on the Murray-Darling Basin has shown. Unsustainable fishing can be replaced, to a substantial extent by aquaculture, as discussed in this Scientific American article.
* Currently, around 30 per cent of food output is lost to various forms of waste. Some of this is inevitable but much, particularly in distribution chains, could be avoided
* People in developed countries often eat more than is good for them, and the wrong kinds of foods. A simple shift from (grain-fed) beef to chicken would require less grain as feed, cut methane emissions and promote better health

For an economist, it’s natural to consider the role of prices in this. If demand grows faster than supply at current prices, then prices will rise. Some of the resulting adjustments, such as an increase in inputs to agriculture, and more expenditure on R&D will be broadly beneficial. Others, such as lower consumption in poor countries (demand for food in rich countries is not sensitive to prices) will not. Broadly speaking, people on low initial incomes will eat more (or less) food if their income grows faster (slower) than food prices. So, a more equitable distribution of global income would mean less people going hungry, even if the rate of growth of productivity slowed down.

I’ll try to write some more later, but my main message is simple. We can feed the world if we make the right choices. There is no greater moral obligation facing the world as a whole and particularly those of us who are well-fed and live in wealthy countries.

fn1. I’m assured that this position doesn’t call for administrative skills, which I conspicuously lack, as evidenced by the fact that I previously had two instances of footnote 1.

fn2. That shouldn’t be surprising, if you think about it. Food supply per person grew substantially over the 20th century, which implies that production growth outpaced population growth, and most of the production growth was due to productivity, not extra inputs. Population growth is slowing, so if productivity growth continues at the historical rate, the growth in food per person will accelerate.

77 thoughts on “Can we feed the world? Will we?

  1. On a positive note, increasing the amount of carbon in soil can both increase agricultural productivity and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Putting a price on carbon will make it profitable for farmers to use biochar or other methods to sequester carbon in soil. Mitigating global warming and improving food production can work hand in hand.

  2. Millions of people starving to death?
    Surely tame fare, compared to some of the ground breaking trivia dominating blogsites at the moment?

  3. One thing to keep in mind is how close we in this country are to mass starvation. Stop and have a think for a moment how long you and your family are from hunger based on your pantry’s storage should all food supplies cease, for some reason.

    People in the country have ready access to food of various types. In the cities it is the supermarkets, specialty food stores, fishmarket, and that is it. How long do you think we will last in some kind of gross catastrophy. We are severely dependent on the efficiency of the processed food supply chain.

  4. “We are severely dependent on the efficiency of the processed food supply chain.”

    Very true. If the torrent of food coming into our big cities stopped for even a few hours we would have severe problems. It’s the price we pay for having cities. It’s worth it.

    Luckily, thanks to relatively free markets in food products, we have very diverse supply lines that provide abundance at low cost and very low risk of complete interruption. Compare and contrast with the water supply.

  5. The soil carbon thing needs to examined more properly; through cultivation, drainage and grazing soil carbon is lost to the atmosphere.

  6. @BilB
    Yes we are Nilb – we are now so dependent on mass chain imported everything we risk not even being able to manufacture a bicycle spoke…talk about desperation on global manufacturers of enormous scale…my god – where would we go to buy sheets if Target went out of business? Not here.
    I really dont give a damn about the price. I do give a damn about being able to source locally and if I dont give a damn about the rest of the world seeing as many nations have been suckered in to the globalisation agenda and arent doing too well from it…well then maybe I just dont dont give a damn about global markets.
    In my defence I will say I do give a damn about local jobs – because if a nation has decrepit local production that isnt generating enough jobs and income, what on earth does it have to offer the global economy except more poverty??.

  7. @Jarrah
    Jarrah – I have more faith in keeping Bob Katters electorate producing than in Woolworths and Coles. Its not all about price at all if it comes with slow strangulation as a bedfellow.

  8. BilB, Jarrah, don’t forget most people in the developed world carry a lot of calories with them and 20% or so could survive a nuclear winter without food!

    I reckon our family could go a two months easily with what’s in the freezer and pantry. My fault, I do the shopping but we live out of town.

    Of course their are large stockpiles of various grains and sugar. The Bundaberg Rum factory had huge stockpiles of molasses when I was there last, not that I drink it ATM, but any port in a storm.

    The developed world also has a huge surplus of pets, which served a useful purpose when they consumed our waste food but nowadays are responsible, indirectly, for massive environmental damage via the diversion of human quality food.

    I wouldn’t like to eat cat or dog but better them than long pig. The EROEI of consuming a budgie is a bit suspect, as is pet mice. Rats and guinea pigs are more promising. You could Sushi the aquarium fish and eat the whole lot without expending energy on too much prep.

    Woolies and Coles have huge stock piles of food in their warehouses. When they say “the fresh food people”, they mean fresh out of the warehouse/cold storage where it’s been since the last glut.

    Lastly, we seem to have a huge surplus of winegrapes. If people headed out of the city after eating it to the bone they would find lots of grapes not too far away, Mclaren vale, Barossa valley, Hunter Valley etc.

    I’ve enjoyed myself a bit here but I hope others did too. Have to go and cook dinner, lamb chops and 3 veg tonight, something we haven’t had for a while.

  9. At 4000 calories per pound of fat, I have 16 days supply at my current workload ’til I get back to my early 20’s weight. Mind you, I had a lot less muscle then too but I got by as lean and mean. I feel like some icecream.

  10. “The problems of irrigated agriculture are fixable” Does the irrigation solution for Murray Darling translate to the net fossil water depletion areas such as Saudi Arabia, North China plain,etc ?

    “Climate change will have a net adverse effect on productivity, particularly if warming exceeds 2 degrees” -Global food production could largely disappear under plausible futures.

  11. Excess weight is something that we can give up but the onslaught of “treated” food products makes it difficult; simplistically it is a matter of willpower, but tell that to someone (not me) who has been through the diet and exercise round-a-bout a few too many times 😦

    For those of us who are in a position to make the – ahem – adjustment, losing a kilogram or two and sticking to fewer kilojoules consumed is no doubt a good idea. I could give up a few off the stomach and not be too unhappy about it! This isn’t a save the world thing, merely a way to trim costs at the supermarket and to trim the waistline in the process. Might grab another chocolate biscuit…

  12. There is a long history of people predicting that in the future food will be made in a factory or grown in a vat. Despite our having many factory farms we have not cut plants and animals out of the process and are not likely to any time soon. However, technological advancements could still have major effects on agriculture over the next few decades.

    – While growing food in a vat is expensive, it could soon be possible to use artificial or modified bacteria to to create long strands of silk protein at low cost. Cheap, lightweight, long lasting and washable silk could reduce the total fibre demand and displace a great deal of natural fibre production. A reduction in wool production would slow global warming by reducing the amount of methane released into the atmosphere and a reduction in cotton production could free up some quality agricultural land. But land would be required to grow feed stocks for silk production.

    – A lot of effort has been put into developing low cost ways to break down cellulose for the production of biofuels. Rather than use the broken down cellulose for fuel, people could eat it. While a new source of industrially produced starch and sugar will not make some people happy, it could be of benefit in keeping down food prices.

    – Growing meat in a vat is very difficult and expensive. However, it may be much easier to use artificial or modified bacteria to produce milk. This has the potential to be more energy efficient than dairy cattle and so easier on the environment. Reducing cow numbers reduces methane gas emissions and the milk could also potentially be made healthier for humans than cow milk. Growing fish oil equivalent in a vat could also marginally protect fish stocks.

    – Plants are fairly crap at capturing energy from sunlight. It’s not their fault. It’s tough to make a solar panel from wood and jelly. In the future we may want to skip the natural photosynthesis part for the production of food, or at least simple carbohydrates. I have no idea how this could be done economically, but it is something that may become practical.

    – Cheef, Bork, Lork and Chuna. One of our most efficient and cheapest sources of animal protein is factory farmed chicken. If chickens or perhaps pigs could be make to taste like beef, lamb, salmon, cod, tuna, etc. it could reduce the number of environmentally damaging cows and sheep and protect fish stocks while making more efficient use of animal feed. While this is not an easy task, it is something that can be improved on gradually and we are already fairly talented at passing off cheap meat as something more expensive.

  13. Growing food in vats thats an interesting proposition – did they not make a film about that “Soylent Green” ? and plants are not crap at capturing energy from sunlight they are masters at it. What do you think you put in your car every week? The accumulated energy of billions of years of plants converting sunlight and water into useful stuff before they died and passed on their genes.

  14. Plants, depending on type and conditions, are about half a percent efficient at converting sunlight into stored chemical energy. Using solar energy to increase the amount of hydrogen bonded to carbon in natural gas is more than an order of magnitude more efficient at storing chemical energy. Unfortunately, eating the end result of this process has a variety of negative effects.

  15. Re the R&D issue, in Australia the funding for R&D is tied to production/income. The funding from government is matched dollar for dollar with the contribution from farmers, which for most industries is tied to volume of production or value of production. (It’s only for very few emerging industries and a small amount of environmental agricultural research that the government provides untied funds.)

    Therefore and ironically, when productivity in an Australian agricultural industry drops, the gross amount available for R&D in Australian agriculture also drops.

    I think it’s a fair bet that water will be the biggest impact on Australian agricultural productivity in coming decades – continuing to shift from not enough to too much.

    Worldwide, maybe in time the USA and other governments will reconsider paying some of its farmers not to produce; which might free up a bit more agricultural land for food and feed production.

  16. What I meant to say was:
    I think it’s a fair bet that water will be the biggest impact on Australian agricultural productivity in coming decades – continuing to shift between not enough and too much – and back again; with increasing extremes of both and with the greater proportion of time spent in the ‘not enough’ water phase.

  17. Genetic Modification should allow the development of improved chickens which will have improved and very efficient chloroplasts in the cells of their featherless skin. During daylight they will spontaneously spread out their wings. Naturally, their meat will come in a great variety of flavours – beef, venison, kangaroo… and even, chicken.

  18. I won’t be happy be happy until we can plug the chickens into the mains power. They’re much better than battery chickens.

  19. Even though population growth is slowing, the current 1.1-1.2% growth figure is practicaly the same number of people as 2% of the 3.5 billion in existence in the 60’s at the start of the green revolution. About 70 million extra mouths per year.

    If we take wheat for instance the annual yield growth 1960-90 was nearly 3%, but from 1990-2007 had been less than 1%. Closer to half a percent.

  20. I wonder how significant peak oil will be for future food production? My impression is that it will be very significant, since so much of the nutrient content of agricultural soil comes from petroleum based fertiliser.

  21. Abraham, fertilsers aren’t make from petroleum. Nitrate fertilizer is made from hydrogen extracted from natural gas, or in a few places coal gas. Increases in the price of natural gas will increase the price of nitrate fertiliser, but only so far as hydrogen can also be obtained by applying electricity to water. Potasium and phosphate and are mined rather than made with petroleum. Petroleum is often used in extraction and transportation of fertilser but it only represents a small fraction of its total cost and substitutes for petroleum are available.

  22. I’ve just found out that humic acid is usually made from brown coal. While it could be argued that technically it’s not a fertilizer, it is put in the ground to make plants grow better and that’s good enough for me. But it’s not a biggie as far as fertiliser is concerned and with even with only a modest price on carbon it would probably soon be replaced with biochar (charcoal).

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