Persistence of extensive hunger is one of the terrible and nasty happenings in a world of unprecedented prosperity. In what is seen as a race between the two, is food production really losing the race with the population growth?
With overlong queues at food banks, produce left rotting and unpicked in fields and empty supermarket shelves, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us simultaneously that too many people live below the poverty line around the world and our food networks are overstretched to their limits.
According to the UN, over one billion people in the world today live in unacceptable conditions of poverty, mostly in developing countries, and hunger and malnutrition remain among the most serious and intractable threats to humanity.
Surprisingly, global food production is incredibly efficient. The world’s farmers produce enough food to feed 1.5x the global population which is enough to feed 10 billion.
As per FAO, there is in fact no significant crisis in world food production at this time. The rate of food production does vary over time, but the trend is quite clearly upward.
Despite it seeming as though there is excess, hunger still persists across the world. How is that possible?
OECD reports that the world population doubled over the last 50 years to 7.5 billion people, while the share of the population suffering from food and nutrition insecurity fell from 15% in 2000 to around 11% today. According to them, an unacceptably high 820 million people are still food insecure and it is not because food is not available. The root cause of hunger and malnutrition today is poverty, often exacerbated by conflict many countries are facing, that inhibits access to food.
A person may be forced into starvation even when there is abundant availability of food if they lose the ability to buy food in the market, through a loss of income. One can’t simply discard the possibility of a future famine just on account of food output and supply. According to Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences Mr. Amartya Sen, famines can occur even without any decline in food production or availability.
One such example of a famine despite peak food availability is the Bangladesh famine of 1974. This occurred in a year of greater food availability per head than in any other year between 1971 and 1976. The starvation was brought about by regional unemployment caused by floods. The floods led to an immediate income loss of rural laborers.
In this context, it is also useful to consider the famine of the 1840s that devastated Ireland by killing a higher proportion of the population than any other famine anywhere in recorded history. George Bernard Shaw in his play “Man and Superman” described the famine as starvation rather than famine through the rich Irish American character by saying “When a country is full of food and exporting it, there can be no famine.” The export of food from Ireland to England at the height of the famine has been a subject of great bitterness in Ireland.
A recent study by Lancet predicted that the global population will peak in 2064 at 9·73 billion and then decline to 8·79 billion in 2100 because women are having fewer children. With these recent reports mentioning a “jaw-dropping decline” in fertility rates, it becomes vital to discuss fertility rates in conjunction with the growing population.
OECD defines the total fertility rate in a specific year as “the total number of children that would be born to each woman if she were to live to the end of her child-bearing years and give birth to children in alignment with the prevailing age-specific fertility rates”. Simply put, it corresponds to total births per woman. Fertility essentially reflects population growth together with mortality and migration.
A study conducted by the University of Oxford reports that over the last 50 years the global fertility rate has halved. The reasons for the dramatic decline in birth rates during the past few decades include postponed family formation and child-bearing and a decrease in desired family sizes. Low sperm counts or the usual implications of infertility have no role to play here. Instead, it is being driven by more women in education and work, as well as greater access to contraception, leading to women choosing to have fewer children.
The UN estimates suggest otherwise that the World’s population could reach a whopping 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. A growing population means more number of mouths to feed. Given the projected increases in world population, it has been estimated that we need to produce more food in the next 35 years than we have ever produced in human history. But striking to note here is that according to the UN, each year, an estimated third (1/3) of all food produced – equivalent to 1.3 billion tons worth around $1 trillion – ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers, or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices.
Agricultural production needs to expand faster than population growth without further damage to the environment and with robust technological advancements in the field of agriculture, food production in contrast seems to be keeping pace with the growing population. However, at the same time, there is serious competition for existing agricultural areas, which limits the extension of agricultural land in addition to the natural constraints of land availability.
Although there is a detectable positive change in the reduction of famines, the world is still far from a sustainable food safety system despite progress. The present-day crisis of Yemen exacerbated by the global pandemic speaks volumes of the issue in consideration. Yemenis are more concerned about hunger than COVID-19, although the pandemic is increasing the risk of famine by deepening Yemen’s economic crisis. People are increasingly struggling to get enough food and the World Food Programme has warned that Yemen could face famine in 2021.
The United Nations aims to achieve its Zero Hunger Target by 2030 which was announced in 2012, one of their Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. But despite various UN agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), World Bank, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) working for this goal, about 821 million people in the world were undernourished in 2018. One in nine people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. Hunger and malnutrition are the biggest risks to health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
The UN warns that the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. Their current estimates show that nearly 690 million people are hungry, or 8.9 percent of the world population which is up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.
With more than a quarter of a billion people potentially at the brink of starvation, swift action needs to be taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions, UN reports.
The report further adds that a profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish more than 690 million people who are hungry today – and the additional 2 billion people the world will have by 2050.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.