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Feeding a world of 8 billion
Posted: 01 May 2004

At the 1996 World Food Summit political leaders from 186 countries pledged to halve the number of hungry people in the world by the year 2015. This would require a reduction in their number by 20 million people each year. Since then the total of people suffering from hunger has been reduced by only 8 million.

Making pledges is one thing; keeping them is entirely another matter, especially when it comes to such a complex issue as matching food supply to human needs. The reason why some 800 million people - the vast majority rural dwellers in the developing world - go hungry each day probably has less to do with food production than with poverty. The rich never starve; the poor often do.
Millet heads and sorghum grown in a good and bad year, Burkino Faso
© Mark Edwards/Still Pictures

If we cannot adequately feed 6 billion today, then what hope is there of satisfying the needs of a projected 8 billion or more by 2030? While some experts believe that we are heading for a crisis where global food shortages will become as much a factor in denying individuals sustenance as poverty, others paint an altogether rosier picture, one in which new technologies, smart environmental management and sensitive social policies will combine to good effect, and usher in a new "doubly green" revolution.

A price to pay
There is, as it happens, plenty to celebrate. In the 1950s average life expectancy was 46; now it hovers around 64. Furthermore the gap in life expectancy between the developed and developing worlds has narrowed from 26 years to 12 years. An increase in agricultural productivity is just one of a number of factors which has led to greater longevity, but it is a vital one. Over the past half century the world's population doubled, while food production tripled. Put another way, while human numbers increased by over 70 per cent in the last three decades, food consumption rose by almost 20 per cent more.

Not that this is much comfort in sub-Saharan Africa where per capita food production and consumption has been falling in recent years along with life expectancy.

The global increase in food production can be largely attributed to the Green Revolution. The introduction of high-yielding seed varieties, the widespread use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and an increase in irrigated cropland boosted yields of rice, wheat and other staples. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s yields per hectare increased by around 2 per cent a year, although over the past decade that has slowed.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, the annual growth in cereal yields is projected to fall to about one per cent during the next two decades. However, the Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that total food production of all sorts will grow annually at about 1.5 per cent over the next 30 years, keeping ahead of population growth, now running at 1.3 per cent a year.

Cereal imports in developing countries are projected to more than double by 2030. Each region will show significant growth, with the Near East and North Africa continuing to account for the bulk of imports (nearly 40 percent). Source: FAO
Cereal imports in developing countries are projected to more than double by 2030. Each region will show significant growth, with the Near East and North Africa continuing to account for the bulk of imports (nearly 40 percent). Source: FAO

However, there has been a price to pay in terms of the environmental side-effects. The Green Revolution has been massively dependent upon inputs of fossil fuels, the extraction of which often causes problems. Agricultural intensification has had a profound impact on biodiversity, and the use of pesticides in particular has led - in the words of Sir Robert May, chief scientific adviser to the UK government - "to an ever more Silent Spring." May anticipates a 10-fold increase in extinction rates over the coming few centuries, and much of this will be attributable to the way we produce food.

Irrigation has been a key factor in enabling us to increase food production. Although less than a fifth of the world's cropland is irrigated, it provides over a third of all food. However, the demand for irrigation water is leading to its over exploitation in many parts of the world. Rivers like the Colorado in the United States no longer reach the sea: every drop is taken, mostly to irrigate the crops in California. In the Middle East, India and China farmers are taking ground water faster than nature can replenish it, and disputes over water are becoming increasingly common.

Much of the water taken for irrigation - probably over a half - never reaches the crops for which it is intended: it evaporates, leaks out of broken pipes or is otherwise wasted. Of equal concern is the mismanagement of irrigation water. According to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) 30 million hectares out of the world's 240 million irrigated hectares have been severely damaged by a build up in salt, and a further 80 million hectares are affected by a combination of salinisation and water logging.

Keeping pace with demand?
Most experts agree that if we are to feed 8 billion people - many of them demanding a meat-rich diet - in 2030, then world food production will have to increase by at least 40 per cent. In the view of FAO, 80 per cent of this increase will have to come from more intensive crop production, and the remaining 20 per cent from expansion of arable land, much at the expense of existing forests.

A look at these two 34-year periods shows that food production will continue to outstrip population growth. The growth rate of both agricultural production and population will decline overall. Source: FAO.
A look at these two 34-year periods shows that food production will continue to outstrip population growth. The growth rate of both agricultural production and population will decline overall. Source: FAO.

"Sustainable intensification without further degradation of natural resources and environment still remains a challenge," it suggests in its latest report, Agriculture: Towards 2015/2030. While FAO admits that the number of hungry will remain "stubbornly high", it believes that growth in food production, although slower than in the past, will still outstrip population growth.

Link to Summary of Agriculture: Towards 2015/2030.

Over the past two decades food prices have steadily declined, and the IFPRI anticipates that food prices will either continue to decline, or remain steady, over the next 20 years. This is a view which is hotly contested by the Worldwatch Institute, which for some years has been arguing that food prices will rise in response to falling per capita production and a rapid growth in demand in the developing world. And certainly, almost all the increase in food demand will come from the developing world, partly because that is where the growth in population will occur, and partly because a rise in affluence will lead to greater demands for meat, which in turn will fuel the demand for feed grain.

Worldwatch believes that water shortages, and the further degradation of agricultural land through soil erosion, salinisation and waterlogging, pose a serious threat to food production in the future. It also points to the huge increases in grain imports that can be expected to be made in China, with its growing population and its appetite for meat at a time when that country is losing agricultural land to other uses and to erosion.

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute also draws attention to the fall in grain production in China in recent years (with last year's harvest of 322 million tons down from 392 million tons in 1998) and warns that falling water tables will add to the difficulty of stepping up production. The resulting rise in imports, and in grain prices, could have global repercusions, he says.

Eroded land in Ethiopia - 40 per cent of global productive land is affected::© Sean Sprague/Panos Pictures
Eroded land in Ethiopia - 40 per cent of global productive land is affected
© Sean Sprague/Panos Pictures

However, IFPRI suggests that many of the high global estimates for land degradation - the World Resources Institute, for example, maintains that almost a third of the world's cropland has been abandoned over the past 40 years as a result of erosion - are unsubstantiated. IFPRI believes that land degradation constitutes "a modest threat only" and forecasts supply substitution: countries with food shortages will simply import more from temperate regions where environmental problems are less of an issue.

Sustainable farming
There is much talk today of sustainable agriculture. This describes systems of food production where farmers work with nature, rather than chafe against it. Instead of blitzing micro-organisms with pesticides, they use integrated pest management (IPM), and encourage beneficial insects at the expense of pest species. Rather than relying on artificial fertilisers to maintain fertility, farmers rotate their crops, use animal manures and plant crops which can be used as green manure.

Sustainable agriculture emphasises the importance of management over technology, and relies heavily on farmers' participation in the decision-making process, and equitable access to local resources. Among the most comprehensive analyses of sustainable agriculture have been those done by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). These suggest that in many countries where it is practised crop yields have increased dramatically, as have local incomes. This is highly significant, as malnutrition is often the scourge of remote rural areas.

There is little doubt that sustainable agriculture - as defined here and practised as far afield as Honduras, the Philippines, Zimbabwe and Mali (see articles by Thompson, Pye-Smith and Toulmin) - can bring considerable benefits to many parts of the world, but sustainable agriculture alone will not be enough to ensure the food security of the growing numbers of rural poor. As IIED's John Thompson suggests, pricing policy, credit systems, gender discrimination and policies which neglect the poor all need to be tackled if the poor are to get a better deal.

More contentious - for many environmentalists, at least - is the call for a "doubly green" revolution, a phrase coined by Gordon Conway of the Rockefeller Foundation. His thesis is this. If we are to feed the world in the 21st century and avoid future economic and civil dislocation, we need a new kind of agriculture - one which is doubly green, where the conservation of resources and the production of large quantities of food are not inimical. Conway believes we need to design new and better plants and animals, and use biotechnology to do so; we need to develop non-polluting alternatives to inorganic fertilisers, to improve soil quality, to enhance opportunities for the rural poor, especially for women, and to forge equitable partnerships between researchers and farmers.

Biotechnology: curse or cure?
The issue of genetically modified organisms - GMOs - has proved highly contentious, especially in the developed world (where, as a rule, there are no food shortages and little malnutrition, other than the variety which stems from overeating). Advocates of biotechnology point to its many possible benefits. In the future scientists may develop GMOs which lead to a dramatic reduction in the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Recently scientists developed a genetically modified strain of rice, golden rice, which contains vitamin A and extra iron, and a strain of vitamin A-rich sweet potato acceptable in sub-Saharan Africa (see Newsfile). Every year over a million children die of vitamin A-related diseases: golden rice could prevent such deaths. Conway believes that the tools of biotechnology are essential if crop yields are to be raised.

Opponents of GMOs, on the other hand, believe that the risks are too great. They fear that gene transfer to wild relatives of genetically modified crops may give rise to super weeds, and they are also concerned about the impact of GMOs on human health. They see the introduction of GMOs, which are largely developed and sold by a handful of multinational corporations, as further evidence of the industrialisation of agriculture, and a further nail in the coffin of small farmers.

Ultimately, it is the nature of society, as much as science, which will determine whether the world can adequately feed all its inhabitants in the future. The poor need not only better access to food, but the means to buy it. Above all, this means raising rural incomes, and this requires fairer trading relationships. At present the economic policies of the rich world, particularly when it comes to subsidising and protecting its own agricultural industry, discriminate against farmers in many other parts of the world. At the same time many developing world governments keep food prices artificially low and fail to invest in the rural economy. By doing so, they discriminate against small farmers. Political reforms will count for just as much as agricultural innovation in the war on hunger.

Worldwatch Paper 150: 'Underfed and Overfed'
World agriculture: towards 2015-2030.

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