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  1. This is the final part of a series of articles that have taken a closer look on the relationship between increasing human population levels and the food production system that sustains human livelihoods. This part examines current and future food levels as well as summarizing all the previous parts. Despite the predictions from populationists, the global agricultural production has grown and even exceeded the population growth rate. Global crop production has had an average annual growth rate of one percent for the past 20 years. This can be exemplified in the slow, although steady, increase in average food per capita availability, which has increased from around 2220 kilocalories per person/day to about 2790 kilocalories between early 1960 and 2006. The largest increase can be seen in developing countries where food availability has jumped from 1850 kilocalories per person/day to over 2640 kilocalories. In 2010, the global food system produced more than 13 quadrillion calories; on a per capita daily basis this equals 5359 kilocalories. Globally, food production has increased by 18 percent over the past two decades and for the past 50 years crop production growth has seen a threefold increase. Interestingly, arable land has declined, at an accelerating rate, with about 40 million hectares since the 1980s in developed countries. At the same time arable land has increased with around 107 million hectares in developing countries. This has resulted in a global increase of 67 million hectares of arable land. Therefore, the increased growth in crop production in the developed world can be attributed to yield improvements and more intensive farming methods. Only a smaller part of the increase can be attributed to an expansion in arable land. FAO believe that the potential to increase crop yields further is substantial and that a future peak yield seems unlikely. FAO's future predictions are hence more positive than the estimates from UNEP earlier. According to FAO there remain significant opportunities to increase food production in developing countries. Especially in Africa which is far behind other regions in its food production capacity. But they also stress the importance of "considerable" public intervention and investment to be able to reach the required yield increases. The majority of these investments are needed in agricultural research, but more are also required to mitigate environmental damage and prevent further environmental degradation. With all this talk about yield levels and ratios it's easy to forget that yields aren't everything when it comes to increasing global food availability. There are other ways that can help improve global food security. Because overall population growth is slowing down FAO predicts that total global food demand will decrease. Unfortunately, deep-rooted poverty plays a large part in this slowdown in global food demand. However, FAO expect that the demands from the bio-based economy, such as the production of biofuels, will continue to increase. This development is a double-edged sword. The further expansion of the bio-economy will offer "considerable growth potential" for the agricultural sector and supply farmers with new income possibilities. But it will also create rising food prices and put pressure on an already strained environment and natural resource base. The topic of biofuels has been covered in previous chapters, so it won't be delved into further here. But another large part of our total cereal production is being diverted away from our plates. While only having around 18 percent of the world's population, OECD countries in the rich world consumes 37 percent of the total global production of cereal. The reason for this large share is mainly due to the high levels of meat consumption in these countries. More than half of the total amounts of cereals consumed are being used to feed our livestock and animals in the meat industry. So by reducing our consumption of meat and biofuels we could increase the availability of food worldwide. But the production of biofuel is estimated to expand and the demand for meat shows no slowing down. Current models show that by 2050 an additional 550 million tonnes of cereals are needed to just feed our livestock. That same amount could have instead fed as many as 3.4 billion people. Another way is to reduce food losses and waste. It's estimated that approximately one-third, or about 1.3 billion tonnes every year, of the food produced for human consumption is being wasted or lost in the production process. Consumers in Europe and North-America waste between 95-115 kg per year/capita, while consumers in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa only waste around 6-11 kg per year/capita. In developed countries with medium- and high-incomes most food is wasted at the consumer level. This is food that is being wasted even though it is still suitable for consumption. In low-income countries in the developing world most of the food is lost in the production process before it even reaches the market. FAO takes this matter seriously. The UN agency considers food losses to be a "significant cost" to the world economy and serious threat to global food security and availability. Population or Environmental Food Crisis? In the beginning of this series, Population or Environmental Food Crisis, I asked if it's possible for organic agriculture, in the face of intensifying environmental degradation and fears of rising population numbers, to reach global food security and sustain human livelihood. The previous parts has shown that Malthus and other populationists have been wrong in their doomsday predictions and that they have misjudged the possibilities of technological advancements to increase our food production. But just as I've shown, this technology has unfortunately created environmental problems that now threatens valuable ecosystems, our resource base and our very ability to sustain more people. It's clear that a different approach to agriculture is needed so that a smarter food production increase can take place. I've been able to conclude that the claims from populationists that we would somehow face a population crisis to be unfounded and excessive. Demographic data shows that global population levels are increasing, but they aren't increasing exponentially and nowhere near those levels that populationists are warning about. The data compiled in the previous parts shows how human population growth is actually starting to slow down and that the growth is expected to stabilize by 2100 with around 10 billion people. In fact, this development has sparked fears about a potential ageing crisis with severe implications for developed countries such as Japan. If the population theories from Malthus-inspired thinkers like Ehrlich were to be true we would see a global population that is just getting younger and younger. But instead the global median age is increasing and data shows that people aged 60 or older is the group that is growing the fastest today. The food price crisis of 2008-2009 has been explained as the result of an energy crisis and that it didn't take place because of uninhibited population growth, like populationists have claimed. A closer look was also taken on undernourishment and malnutrition. While large portions of people around the world are still undernourished we are now experiencing a nutrition transition characterized by overnutrition and obesity. Overweight people has now actually surpassed the number of undernourished people in the world. We could also see how global food production is growing and how it has even exceeded population growth rate. But if we are to satisfy the projected food demand from a growing population we need to increase our global food production with 70 percent by 2050. This is no easy task, and it doesn't help that food prices are expected to rise and become more volatile from escalating environmental degradation. To avoid this we need to make changes to our food production system as well as re-thinking our own consumption patterns. Theoretically it's probably possible to increase yields and make the global food system more productive by further intensifying the use of external inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which Borlaug among other advocates. But this could potentially have devastating effects on our environment, food prices and population levels. Even populationists, such as Kaplan and Ehrlich, warn that such practices could do more harm than good. Instead organic farming has been put forward as the solution to our growing environmental problems and broken food system. But populationists are opposing this alternative agriculture method as they believe it will be unable to adequately sustain human livelihood on a global scale. In an effort to find an answer to this, several studies on organic and conventional yield levels have been explored. The result is far from unanimous, but a large part of the studies shows promising results for proponents to organic agriculture. Several side-by-side studies seem to support the claims that it's possible for organic farming to sustain current and even future population levels. Considering the findings in this thesis, it's no surprise that national and international bodies are now seeing organic agriculture as a viable option in food security discussions. It's obvious that the potential for conventional agriculture to be converted to organic farmland around the world is vast. As can be seen from developments in Europe, this conversion is taking place, albeit to a varying degree and speed, with a few countries having done more progress than others. Despite this, organic farming still plays a shockingly tiny role in the global food production system. It's clear that the easiest way to safeguard food availability for current and future generations is to reduce the production of biofuels and our consumption of meat "“ both being responsible for taking away considerable farmland from crop cultivation. So, the answer to the question, if it's possible for organic agriculture to sustain human livelihood, is a probable yes. Organic farming seem to be capable of sustaining global human population levels while lessening the negative effects the agricultural sector has on our environment. It also seems that organic agriculture can withstand the effects of climate change much better than their conventional counterparts. But organic farming has a long and difficult road ahead. Considerable conventional farmland need be converted to organic land. Furthermore, a substantial increase in investments into research and development of alternative agricultural practices and yield increasing methods are also needed. But there's no question about it, we need to increase our food production in a smart way, with or without an imminent population crisis. Luckily for us, this seems to be possible.
  2. This is part six of a series of articles that take a closer look on the relationship between increasing human population levels and the food production system that sustains human livelihoods. While part five examined conventional agriculture, this post will look on the possibilities and realities of organic farming to feed a growing population. Organic farming is an agriculture system that has a more holistic approach in which it uses methods that are designed to be less damaging to ecosystem services and the natural resource base. Organic farming does this by emphasizing the overall health of the agro-ecosystem by promoting and enhancing local biodiversity and biological activity in the soil, recycling its own waste from crops and livestock so that it can return valuable nutrients to the land, improving and maintaining soil-fertility, minimizing all forms of agriculture-related pollution and its impact on the environment, among other things. Instead of synthetic materials and off-farm inputs organic farmers are keener on using on-farm resources and management practices which involve cultural, biological and mechanical methods. This does not mean that organic farming is hostile towards technology. Organic farmers have no problems with utilizing modern technology selectively while avoiding those practices or technological elements which are risky and possibly harmful for the environment. While conventional agriculture is free to use various practices, organic farming is subject to both national and international regulations which limit them in their options and practices. These certification standards and regulations may differ depending on country and region, but they all restrict the use of pesticides, fertilizers and certain forms of genetically modified crops organisms. As the demand for healthy food and environmental concerns are becoming more important for consumers around the world, alternative approaches to agriculture have become less alternative and more mainstream. Organic farming enterprises are emerging from the now profitable business and its products are no longer restricted to niche health food stores or farmers' markets. Despite this recent progress for alternative agriculture practices, the skepticism against organic farming is still strong. Ehrlich predicted that the use of pesticide and conventional practices would intensify, and that the ecological aspect of agriculture would be "ignored more and more" as population numbers increased and produce became scarcer. Critics argue that organic agriculture isn't more environmentally friendly as it requires more land to be converted to farmland to be able to reach similar yields levels as conventional farming. Critics also argue that vegetables that have been organically grown in greenhouses around Europe are much less sustainable than their conventional counterparts from Africa. Many people are also skeptical to claims that organic food is healthier or that it would contain more nutrients. Most of the criticism against organic farming revolves around the smaller yields the alternative system produces compared to the more conventional methods. The Possibilities of Organic Farming The UNEP report mentioned in part five forecasts that food will rise in demand as human population grows by about two billion more individuals, incomes increases and the growing consumption for meat continues unhindered. The report warns that although global food production "rose substantially in the past century", mainly thanks to agricultural expansion as well as fertilizers and irrigation, yields have in the last decade nearly stabilized for cereals. According to their estimates it's "uncertain" that further yield increases can be achieved. If they are possible to achieve, they will most likely be too small and thus unable to keep pace with the growing food demand. UNEP blames the leveling of yield increases partly on a lack of investments in agricultural research and development. But more so they warn about the negative effects on future crop yield levels that urban expansions, soil and environmental degradation, increased biofuel production, and anthropogenic climate change will have. The combined effects of all these has the potential to reduce projected yields by 5-25 percent by 2050. This would cause food shortages, with food production being up to 25 percent short of demand, and prices that are 30-50 percent higher than today. This scenario could be averted if we manage, while increasing yields, to optimize our food chain system. This is possible to accomplish by minimizing the loss of food energy from each step of the food production chain - from harvest and process to consumption and recycling. But more importantly, we need a "major shift" towards "more eco-based production" (read: organic farming) that can help reverse soil degradation, conserve biodiversity and protect ecosystem services. One study, which examines the relative yield performance between conventional and organic agriculture systems from 66 previous yield studies, shows that organic yields are on average 25 percent smaller than conventional ones. The results in the analysis ranged from 5 percent to 34 percent smaller yields, depending on contextual conditions, for organic farming. This would indicate that organic agriculture requires additional land to be converted into farmland for it to reach similar yield levels as conventional agriculture. A 13 year side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional corn-soybean systems, at the Iowa State University in the US, shows that organic farms can provide similar yields as conventional agriculture, while at the same time resulting in higher economic returns for the organic farmer. Another similar study is the 30 year side-by-side trial of organic and conventional corn and soybean yields by the Rodale Institute. The Farming Systems Trial (FST) started in 1981 to study the transition from conventional to organic farming procedures as well as compare yield levels between the two agriculture methods. During the first few years of the transition there was a decline in yields for the organic crops. Later on the organic yield levels saw a rebound and today the yield levels match, or in some cases even surpasses the conventional crop yields. Especially interesting are the findings that organic yields will outperform conventional crop yields during years of drought. Studies done on data from the FST confirm this to be the case. A review of the FST by David Pimentel and others from the Cornell University shows that organic agriculture produces the same corn and soybean yields as more conventional farms. During the drought years of 1988-1998, the organic crop yields were 22 percent higher than conventional yields in the trial. Organic farmers in the US say that they have fared better against the recent drought this past summer which severely damaged crops, reduced crop yields and drove up food prices. A 21 year study of organic and conventional farming systems in Switzerland may show what kind of performance we could expect to see from organic agriculture in Central Europe. The result from the study indicates that organic farming systems in Europe would see cereal crop yields that are on an average 20 percent lower than their conventional counterparts. But at the same time the nutrient input for the organic systems were 34-51 percent lower than in the conventional systems. That results in crops that require 20-56 percent less energy during their life-span, or 36-53 percent lower energy intakes per acre of farmland for organic crops. Therefore, the authors of the study still consider organic agriculture to be an "efficient production" method. The study could only find minor quality differences between the food systems. The organically managed soils showed a greater biological activity and a better floral and faunal diversity than the conventional managed soils. Their conclusion is that organic farming is "a realistic alternative" to conventional agriculture. Profits for the organic farm remained similar to its conventional equivalent. This would indicate that organic farmers could see financial gains from converting to organic agriculture as they need to spend less money on expensive off-farm inputs. Another study, which compiled data on the current global food supply as well as comparative yields between organic and conventional farming methods, also suggest that its possible for organic agriculture to feed both current and future human populations. The purpose of the study was to try and estimate how much food could be produced after a hypothetical global shift to organic farming. From a plethora of various other studies comparing crop yields between organic and conventional farms, the authors of the study calculated a dataset of 293 examples of global yield ratios for all the major crops in both the developed and developing world. The results showed that organic farming would give smaller yields in the developed world while the organic yields in the developing world would be larger than their current conventional yields. Two different models were then constructed. The first model applied the yield ratio for developed countries to the entire world, the model assumed that regardless of location all farms would only get the lower developed-country yield levels. For the second model the authors applied the lower organic yield ratios from the developed world to developed countries, the higher organic yield ratios which were measured earlier for the developing world was then applied to those respective countries. The results from the first conservative model indicated that organic farming would generate 2641 kilocalories per person/day. This is a good result, especially considering that the current food supply provides 2786 kilocalories per person/day and that the average caloric requirement for adults is between 2200-2500 kilocalories. The result from the second model was even more promising. It showed that organic farming on a global scale could generate 4381 kilocalories per person/day. This would result in a 75 percent increase in food availability for the world's current population. The results from model two would also result in a food production that could sustain a much larger human population. This increase in food quantity would be possible to achieve while maintaining the current agricultural land base. Organic farming methods could even have the potential to reduce total agricultural land base. If properly intensified, organic agriculture "could produce much of the world's food" and improve food security in developing countries. But for this transition, from conventional to alternative, to be possible we need to overcome numerous agronomically and economically challenges. The authors of the study calls for increased investments in agricultural R&D. Considering that for the past 50 years most agricultural research has been focused on conventional methods there is huge potential for comparable improvements in yield increasing procedures and pest management methods for organic farming. This is especially the case in developing countries which only spend US$0.55 for every US$100 of agricultural output on public agricultural research and development. This can be compared to US$2.16 for developed countries. Small farms are being highlighted in many of these studies as an important way to reach global food security. Both in developed and developing countries the production per unit area is greater on smaller farms. Therefore an increase in small farms would have positive effects for global food availability. In fact, and despite the large modern industrial-like farms of today, around 70 percent of the world's food comes from small farms. The widely held belief that the large monocultural farms are the most efficient and productive is a myth; it's actually the smaller farms, many of whom are located in developing countries that are the most efficient in their production. Small farmers manage to maximize the use of their land by using integrated farming systems which involve using a wide variety of crops as well as livestock on the farm. This combination helps provide a range of food and animal products to the local economy as well as supplying the farmer with manure for improving soil fertility. Larger farms might have higher yields per acre of a single crop, but overall the total production per acre of all crops and animal products combined is much higher on smaller farms. This way small farms helps to strengthen the local economy and environment while also improving food security worldwide. The Realities of Organic Agriculture Today Despite these promising possibilities for organic farming the reality is that organic farming still plays a very insignificant role in our global food production system. Total global arable land, which include both crop cultivation and pastures for livestock, is around 13 805 000 km². Of this only 0.9 percent, or around 370 000 km², are organic. In 2010 only seven countries had more than a total of ten percent organic agricultural land. In the beginning of the 21st century, some 17 million hectares of land (nearly 170 000 km²) were dedicated to organic farming globally. In North America around 1.3 million hectares of farmland were farmed organically. The majority, around 45 percent, were located in Oceania, mainly Australia. Europe had 25 percent and Latin America shortly followed with 22 percent. The highest share could be found in the EU with more than three percent of total agricultural land area dedicated to organic farming. 12 EU member states and the share of total organic crop area out of total utilized agricultural area (%) in their respective nations. Data from the Czech Republic and Estonia are not available until after 2002 and 2003 respectively. Source: EUROSTAT. When it comes to organic farming policy, the "EU leads the world." Various policies and political mandates in support of organic development have been in place in the EU since late 1980. In 1991, ten years before the equivalent US legislation came; the EU introduced consistent labeling of agricultural products and food across all member states. In the past two decades the amount of EU land dedicated to organic agriculture has seen a dramatic increase. Organic farmland increased five-fold just during 1993-2000. This development is expected to continue thanks to continued growth in consumer demand for organic products and various government incentives and mandates. Total organic land area, i.e. fully converted land area as well as land area under conversion from conventional to organic farmland, in EU27 increased from 3.6 to 4.1 percent 2005-2007. In 2008, organic farmland covered a total of 7.8 million hectares. The total organic area continues to show an upward growth trend in the union. During 2006-2007 the increase was 5.9 percent. 2007-2008 organic farmland increased with 7.4 percent. The five member states with the largest organic area for EU27 is Spain (1.3 m/ha), Italy (1.0 m/ha), Germany (0.9 m/ha), UK (0.7 m/ha) and France (0.6 m/ha). Figure 6 shows how the size of organic farmland varies greatly from one member state to another with some states making more progress than others. The graph shows how Sweden's farmland has increased from 5.9 percent to 14.3 percent during 2000-2010. Other countries haven't seen a similar development during this period. The UK increased their share with less than one percent, going from 3.3 to only 4.1 percent.
  3. This is part five of a series of articles that take a closer look on the relationship between increasing human population levels and the food production system that sustains human livelihoods. Part five and six examines the current state of the agriculture sector around the world. This post will focus on conventional forms of agriculture, it upsides and downsides, while part six looks on the possibilities of organic farming to feed a growing population. We cannot ignore the basic fact that population growth, along with rising incomes and urbanization, is the main socio-economic factor for increasing global food demand. Even if the total demand for food is estimated to grow more slowly this century, substantial increases in the global food production is required. To be able to satisfy the projected food demand during this half of the century we need to increase global food production by 70 percent by 2050. Preferably we need to do this without further degrading our already fragile ecosystems and natural resources. Our planet has considerable land reserves which in theory could be converted to arable land to satisfy future demands from a growing population. But the extent to which this is possible, or even preferred, is limited. Most of these land reserves are situated in only a few countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa where the lack of proper infrastructure could, at least in the short-term, limit their contribution to the global food production system. But more importantly, large parts of these land reserves have important ecological functions that will be destroyed if turned into arable land. Considering these limitations, FAO projects that the global area of arable land will be expanded by five percent, or around 70 million hectares, by 2050. The environmental food crisis is a term that comes from UNEP and a report which the organization commissioned in 2009 in response to the food price crisis. The report concluded that food prices will increase and become more volatile from escalating environmental degradation. Conventional agriculture Conventional agriculture has had both positive and negative effects for human society. Technological innovations since the 19th century have managed to completely transform rural landscapes, populations and agriculture productions in the developed world. The key element of this transformation was the change from "on-farm" to "off-farm" resources. Thanks to new technological advances it became more economically profitable to replace human labour with machinery. Equally profitable became it to enhance the farm's soil fertility by just buying chemical fertilizers. The use of pesticide allowed farmers to protect their crops from pests while making large-scale agricultural systems more easily managed. These technological advancements have increased the productivity of the agriculture sector which in turn has led to food becoming more abundant and cheaper for consumers. The labour force which was replaced by machinery could also be employed in other production areas, and thus the total wealth of society increased. But this development has had socio-economic and environmental effects. The population decline in rural areas has led to major structural changes in which formerly agricultural regions now have unemployment levels above average and difficult social conditions. The technological transformations, in which agricultural systems have been detached from their natural roots, are especially evident in factory farms where livestock are involved. Just consider the housing of hens in battery cages and how little, if anything, it resembles the natural environment. As conventional farms are looking more like factories with industrial-like production systems, concerns for animal welfare and environmental health is becoming more and more significant in developed and affluent societies. There is no denying that the negative effects of conventional agriculture are far reaching. Reports show that 15 out of 25 ecosystem services, such as water supply or various forms of food production like seafood, are already degraded or used beyond sustainable levels. Actions taken to further intensify the use of the natural resource base and these other ecosystem services will often cause the degradation of other areas and services. The intensification of our food production system has caused loss of tropical forest and biodiversity, soil nutrient depletion, erosion, desertification, and depletion of freshwater reserves. Considering that irrigated agriculture is an extremely productive food system, it covers only one fifth of arable land but contributes nearly 50 percent of global crop production, it's worrying that fresh water reserves are being depleted at an alarming rate. All in all, conventional agriculture is said to be responsible for 75 percent erosion in biodiversity, land degradation and water destruction. Long-term projections do suggest that the world's natural resource base should be adequate to meet future demands, but only if the degradation of our ecosystem services are stopped, or at least significantly slowed down. The conventional food system is also responsible for massive greenhouse gas emissions. In the US alone, the conventional food system is with its 19 percent just behind cars when it comes to total usage of fossil fuels. Globally, our food production system is responsible for around 37 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere. In the 1940s our food production system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of energy we invested. Today it takes 10 calories of energy to produce a single calorie of food. This transformation is not hard to imagine considering how much fossil fuels are required in every process of the industrial food production system. Conventional agriculture requires chemical fertilizers and pesticides which are made with the help from natural gas and petroleum, it also requires heavy farm machinery and the whole procedure involves energy intense food processing and packaging, as well as fossil fuel-powered transportation systems to reach consumers worldwide. The green revolution Despite its name, the Green Revolution should not be mistaken for an alternative or organic agriculture practice. It's quite the opposite. The Green Revolution can be seen as a neo-agricultural version of conventional farming practices of the 1960-1970s where the main aim is large-scale environmental modification. The Green Revolution involves the development, practice and distribution of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified grains, and large-scale irrigation infrastructure "“ all being practices that requires a heavy and constant input of fossil fuels. Norman Borlaug, whom was considered to be the father of the Green Revolution, continuously advocated for the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers as a solution to growing populations and environmental degradation. Borlaug rejected claims that organic agriculture would be better for the environment as "ridiculous". Because organic farming resulted in lower yields Borlaug predicted that more land and forests would be required to be cultivated if we wanted to be able to maintain the same yield levels for organic farming as the ones achieved from more conventional methods. If we intensify our farming practices we can leave more land for the rainforest, Borlaug's thinking went. There's truth to this. Thanks to the "seed and fertilizer" practices of the Green Revolution, global cereal production tripled between 1950-2000 while land use only increased by 10 percent during the same period. UNEP's assessment for the future development of our food production system states that any future system will be dependent on and "must contribute positively" towards the realization of "healthy ecosystems and resilient communities". Clearly, the Green Revolution and conventional agriculture has no place in such a food system.
  4. In 2007, food prices increased dramatically and the world quickly ushered in a global food crisis that lasted until late 2009. The global price increase mainly affected basic food commodities such as wheat, rice and corn, but not so much products such as coffee and cacao. The effects were felt fast and hard, especially in developing countries where much of the food was being imported and where people, who already spent half or more of their income on groceries, couldn't afford a doubling of food prices. Riots started to take place in many cities around the world by people who no longer could afford to buy enough food to themselves and their families. In the developing countries worst affected, the national governments tried to counter the food price crisis with various political and economic means. They reduced taxes on cereals and lowered the tariff on imports of food and/or introduced various food subsidizes for their citizens. Many developing countries, including China and India, also introduced export restrictions on their own agricultural and food products - sparking heavy criticism from the US and IMF. Looking back at the events it's easy to see that it was just a bubble and that food prices, almost as quickly as they had come, went back to their previous levels again. But back then, in the middle of it, many people claimed that the crisis was a sign of things to come, and that overpopulation was the main culprit. In a discussion on Nightwaves on BBC Radio 3, Susan Blackmore, a neuroscientist, and Professor John Gray, from the London School of Economics, discussed overpopulation and its link to the then ongoing food crisis. Both agreed that the "fundamental problem" is that there are just "too many people", with Blackmore adding that she hoped, "for the planet's sake", that a global disease, such as the bird flu, would come and "reduce the population". In a TV interview, Britain's Prince Phillip said that it was the demand for food from "too many people" that had caused the food price crisis. Number (in millions) of undernourished people between 1990 and 2012. Source: FAO Hunger Portal 2012. According to recent figures, around 870 million people were undernourished during 2010-2012. Those numbers equal 12.5 percent of the global population. The majority of these people live in developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Western Asia and Northern Africa. As can be see in the figure above, this number is a reduction since early 1990's levels when around 19 percent of the global population was undernourished. So progress in food security has been made. But from the numbers one can also see that most of this progress was accomplished before the global food price crisis in 2007-2008. Since then, the reduction in undernourished people has slowed down and leveled off. Despite this, the actual increase in global hunger was less severe than previously expected. The FAO, WFP and IFAD concludes in their 2012 report on food insecurity that "it is clear" that the previous achievements in reducing hunger has "slowed considerably since 2007", and that it's doubtful that the Millennium Development Goals, as well as previously stated hunger targets and commitments in several regions around the world will be achieved in the near future. These failures in reducing undernourishment can be blamed on political instability due to wars and conflicts. But a lack of political will to prioritize hunger reductions, weak government structures and institutions such as the absence of proper transparency and food programs, both on a regional and global level, can also be blamed for the failure. The food price crisis, nor the halt in the reduction of global hunger, had nothing to do with overpopulation and inadequate food production - such as the scenario populationists are constantly warning about. In fact, both 2007-2008 were pretty normal years for farmers. Their yields varied no more than usual and the total world food production continued to grow by 1-2 percent per year - the same pace as it had done for the past decade. It's true that farmers had troublesome years during 2006-2007 in Australia due to drought, and that the EU and Ukraine produced much less wheat than estimated before 2007. But this reduction was offset by unusually good harvests in Russia, USA, Argentina and Kazakhstan. In fact, the total amount of wheat on the global market increased by around 5 percent which resulted in record yields in 2006-2007. Demands from large populous nations such as China and India had no effect on the rising food prices either as the two nations are both net exporters of cereals. Instead, rising oil prices and growing productions of biofuels were to blame for the food price crisis. Fossil energy in the form of oil is an important component in the modern agriculture industry, so it's not surprising that changes in oil price will have effects on the price of food for consumers worldwide. In this case it was the increasing costs involved in the highly energy intense production of nitrogen fertilizers for agriculture that in turn resulted in increased food prices. The second reason was the growing production of biofuels from agricultural commodities. To put things into perspective and to show just on what massive scale global biofuel production is on let's take the US as an example: About 25 percent of the US corn production is now used in producing ethanol - which is far more than the country's entire total corn export. Globally, biofuel production, which is based on agricultural commodities, has more than tripled 2000-2008. Today it accounts for more than two percent of the global consumption of transport fuels. Another example: In 2007-2008, roughly 10 percent of the total usage of coarse grains was used in the production of ethanol. Jean Ziegler, UN's independent expert on the right to food, has called the production of biofuels from food crops a "catastrophe for the hungry people" and a "crime against humanity". In light of the food price crisis the FAO convened a three-day meeting with experts in Rome, Italy, in June of 2009. They came to the conclusion that the food price crisis was a result of increases in energy prices, and that it shows how energy and agricultural markets are becoming more intertwined with each other. In their report they warn that a further rise in biofuels production would be "a real risk" for global food security. They therefore urge that policies that promote the use of agricultural commodities for biofuels production "should be reconsidered" so that the competition between food and fuels can be mitigated. These malnutrition numbers represents people who don't get their minimum energy intake, which FAO considers to be about 1900 calories per day/person, the exact amount of calories varies depending on region, age and gender. The human body needs a diet of enough variation between vitamins, fat, proteins and minerals. So just because one gets enough of calories doesn't mean one has a balanced and satisfactory diet. It's estimated that at least one billion people suffers from this "hidden hunger" which is characterized by various forms of nutrient shortages, which turns into deficiency diseases and often develops into chronic sickness. Here's the twist. We are currently experiencing a nutrition transition, characterized by overnutrition and obesity, which affects all societies around the world. As urbanization increases and people's incomes grow bigger, more people are gradually adopting a lifestyle which involves not just reduced physical activity but also a more energy-dense diet, which consists of semi-processed foods which are higher in saturated fats, sugars and cholesterol. Obesity has more than doubled since the 1980's and the majority of adult obesity can be found in developed countries, with the US being a prime example. As a result of this transition, the number of overweight people has reached more than 1.4 billion people worldwide. This surpasses the number of undernourished people in the world.
  5. Population or Environmental Food Crisis?

    In 2011 the world's population passed the seven billion mark. By 2050 the human family is expected to reach nine billion individuals. Many believe that we are in the midst of a population crisis that already has far-reaching effects on our society and our environment. Globally, almost 900 million people are chronically undernourished today, and more than 1.4 billion people are estimated to suffer from malnutrition. Despite various UN goals to halve hunger in recent years there just seems to be no end in sight. At the same time, ecological degradation is getting worse. We can see how important and unique ecosystems are being destroyed, we can see the alarming loss of biodiversity, we can see how desertification and soil erosion is spreading, we can see the worrying signs of depletion of freshwater reserves, and we can see the devastating effects from the increasing quantities of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that we are spewing out. Our food production system and our agricultural practices play a central role in both worsening and lessening the effects of environmental degradation. So it seems we are facing an environmental food crisis as well. The main argument brought forward by populationists and Malthus-inspired thinkers is that we cannot feed a growing population and that, if we haven't already, we will soon reach our carrying capacity. War, pestilence and famine will follow and wreak havoc around the world, they warn. Others believe that more alternative and environmentally friendly agricultural practices can help us sustain population numbers while at the same time safeguarding our environment from further degradation. Populationists have always been pessimistic about our possibilities to sustain current and future populations let alone to do it from organic farming, which they argue will give us smaller yields than what we get from more conventional agriculture. But which side of this debate is correct? Is it possible for us to convert to more environmentally friendly agricultural practices that can help stop, or at least slow down, ecological degradation while at the same time being able to feed a growing number of humans? That's a pretty big question to try and explain. Therefore I will divide everything up into smaller and more manageable chapters and parts. The first part will take a closer look on popular overpopulation theories, both from the early days of Malthus and to more modern flavors of population theory. Part 2: Popular overpopulation theories Part 3: Population levels for today and tomorrow Part 4: The end of cheap food Part 5: Conventional agriculture Part 6: Alternative agriculture Part 7: Reaching food security today and tomorrow
  6. Jean Ziegler, UN's special rapporteur on the right to food, yesterday called for the suspension of biofuels production saying biofuels are a "crime against humanity." "Biofuels, with today's current production methods, are a crime against a great part of humanity. They're an intolerable crime, and I requested the United Nations General Assembly in New York in my last report to the Human Rights Council that a moratorium be imposed as a five-year ban against this transformation." The comment was made during an emergency summit in Switzerland where the UN discusses ways to tackle the global food crisis. Ziegler said later in an interview with Al Jazeera that "burning food today so as to serve the mobility of the rich countries is a crime against humanity". According to Jean Ziegler biofuels is a major cause for the food crisis that has thrown millions into poverty. And he is not alone in arguing this. The European Environment Agency's (EEA) Scientific Committee recently called for the suspension of EU's target to increase the share of biofuels used in transport to 10% by 2020. The committee wants a new and "comprehensive scientific study on the environmental risks and benefits of biofuels" before any targets should be set.
  7. The global food crisis

    We are already now starting to see riots and protests around the world that have been triggered by the lack of resources. And unfortunately this is a sight we will see more and more of in the future. People are protesting in Haiti, Argentina, Cambodia, Indonesia, Egypt, Bolivia, Senegal and Yemen because of rising food costs or because they can't even buy any food - cause there isn't any. The FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, warns that the crisis is much worse than previously thought. According to a new report released earlier this month 37 countries around the world are currently facing food crises. FAO urges "all donors and International Financing Institutions to increase their assistance or consider reprogramming part of their ongoing aid in countries negatively affected by high food prices". Sir John Holmes, undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and the UN's emergency relief coordinator, warns that the rising food price threatens global security and will undermine already weak governments. The food prices are rising due to many different things that are linked together like a huge global ecosystem. When our global population grows at record speeds the demand for food and other resources also grows. And when the oil reserves shrink the price on gas and oil rises and makes it harder to sustain our global trade system. Farmers must pay more for their gas to their tractors and equipments and shipping the food around also costs more due to the rising fuel costs. At the same time farmers face climate changes (that our addiction to oil have created) that reduces their harvests. Now we are even trying to satisfy our oil addiction and car-fetish by replacing the oil with different biofuels (that are overall worse than the oil). The European Environment Agency's (EEA) Scientific Committee recently called for the suspension of EU's target to increase the share of biofuels used in transport to 10% by 2020. The committee calls for a new, "comprehensive scientific study on the environmental risks and benefits of biofuels" before any targets should be set. The rising demand for meat is also a part of the problem. But no matter how much we try to stop our unsustainable food and resource system and move over to a more local and sustainable system the food crisis will still remain a big issue around the world, now and further ahead in the future. Now maybe the only thing that can save us is the rationing of greenhouse gas emissions as well as our provisions, especially the meat, worldwide. Image Credit: UN World Food Programme. Photo by Giuseppe Bizzarri.