Monday, October 31, 2011

Feeding the world, a scary proposition.

This semester, I am taking a course at UC Berkeley called Edible Education: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement – organized by Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Nikki Henderson (who I gushed over in a previous post). Each week, at least one speaker addresses the class of nearly 400 students and members of the general public on a topic related to food, including sustainability, world poverty and hunger, the rights of farm and food workers, and health. Although I have spent a lot of time learning about our food system, this class has helped me put things into a global context.

Hunger and poverty throughout the world are seemingly insurmountable problems that are likely to worsen as the world population grows. In fact, as of today, the population is estimated to exceed 7 billion. In 2010, there were 925 million starving people in world, so how can we possibly hope to feed everyone in the future?

I have often heard proponents of agribusiness, and especially the biotech industry, argue that feeding the world will only happen if we make agricultural technologies – such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides – more accessible and continue to develop and introduce genetically modified seeds. The idea they present is essentially this: to reduce hunger, we need to increase crop yields.

The opposing viewpoint, as presented by Raj Patel during a recent lecture, is that we already produce enough calories to feed the world. People are hungry because food is too expensive or simply inaccessible. To reduce hunger, we need to empower the poor.

So which is it? Do we have a production problem, or a distribution problem? Most importantly, how can we reduce the number of hungry people in the world?

A numbers game.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) calculates and tracks hunger statistics throughout the world. Chronic hunger and undernurishment are words the FAO uses to describe people who are consistently unable to consume their minimum caloric needs – 1800 kCal for the average person. People who live under these conditions are classified as food insecure.

Determining the number of people who are food insecure takes several steps. First, the FAO calculates the number of calories available for consumption in every country in which they can obtain data. The number of available calories includes sources, like domestic production and imports, and sinks, such as exports and the amount of calories wasted or put to uses other than human consumption. The FAO compiles statistics over a period of 1-2 years, and then converts that into the number of calories available per day. Lastly, they divide the total number of available calories by the population of the country to get the “food supply” in kilocalories per person per day.

The FAO then tries to estimate the number of calories that the population needs, which is based on the proportion of men versus women and the age breakdown of the population. According to the USDA, men aged 19-30 need at least 2400 calories per day. Women of the same age require at least 1800. Children under 3 require only about 1000 calories per day. Based on the population statistics, the FAO calculates a number of calories needed for everyone in the country to get the food they need.

The last step is to estimate the amount of food that actually makes it into the mouths of the people. First, the FAO assumes that caloric intake within a country follows a log-normal distribution. A log-normal distribution looks a bit like the profile of a baseball cap. It implies that most of the population consumes a range of calories corresponding to the width of the cap, but there are still some people in the bill who consume a lot more than average. There can also be a small tail at the low end, which would indicate that a small portion of the population get many fewer calories than average. A log-normal distribution can come in different proportions. To tailor the distribution to a given country, the FAO uses information provided in household surveys to determine the width and location of the distribution’s peak and the extent of the tails.

By comparing the available calories with the calories required to feed the population and the way in which food is distributed in a country, the FAO finally arrives at an estimate of the number of people who are food insecure. The FAO hunger map is shown below; there is also a nifty interactive version on their hunger website.

The map is interesting (and depressing), but what does it really tell us about the reasons for hunger? The FAO makes informed assumptions about distribution, but how can we know for sure the effect of distribution? To get around these issues, I decided to look up the statistics for only the first two steps of the FAO’s process: the available calories in a country and the calorie requirements based on the population statistics.

Food for thought.

Below is a table I created using FAO data that is available from a searchable database called FAOSTAT. I have listed statistics for the 10 countries with the highest percentages of undernourished people as a percent of the population. I then show the same statistics for the Unites States and some groups of countries: the FAO’s group of least developed countries, South-east Asia, Europe, and the world.

I included some extra information because I thought it was interesting, but the most relevant columns are the average caloric requirement, which has been weighted by the age and sex distribution of the given population, and the food supply. A country that literally does not have enough calories for all of its citizens to consume their minimum requirement would be one in which the food supply is smaller than the average caloric requirement. Of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of hunger, only two actually have too few calories: Eritrea and Burundi, each by less than 100 calories. In Mozambique, in which 39% of the population suffers from a chronic lack of calories, there are over 2000 calories available each day, compared to a requirement of only 1800.

The bottom line is this: there is enough food in all of these countries for just about everyone to get the calories they need. However, even if the FAO’s assumptions about distribution are not completely accurate, there certainly are starving people in these countries.

How can there be more calories than the population needs and still be starving people? In more economic terms, how can there be too much supply and unmet demand? What is happening to the extra calories?

We are the 99%.

The FAO suggests that inequality and food insecurity rise together. That would suggest that richer people either eat more calories than they really need (because they can afford to) or are able to control the calories in some other way. Perhaps poor people also have a harder time getting food because of transportation issues. Certainly, the political stability within a country has some bearing on food access as well. As the FAO points out, violent conflict can reduce or cut off the food supply to some people. Even economic interventions aimed at helping developing countries have been criticized, by Raj Patel and others, when it comes to food markets (read more here or here). I’m not well-versed enough in economics and global trade to really assess these arguments. However, one thing is clear to me. We cannot solve world hunger by simply increasing crop yields.

It’s one thing to say that the world produces enough calories to feed everyone. But even in the countries with the highest rates of undernurishment, there are enough calories to feed nearly everyone. As the population grows, perhaps we really will need to increase production to make sure everyone can eat, but I doubt it will matter much unless people can access those calories. Otherwise, the only number that changes is the number of available calories, not the number of hungry people. And that’s a scary thought.

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