What food crisis?

In 1961 the world population was just over 3 billion. Now it is 7 billion. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2013 Statistical Year Book is now out and shows that during this period:

Agricultural production has increased  

  • Global crop production has expanded threefold over the past 50 years, largely through higher yields per unit of land and crop intensification.
  • Global per capita food supply rose from about 2 200 kcal/day in the early 1960s to over 2 800 kcal/day by 2009
  • Buoyed by high commodity prices, agriculture has demonstrated astonishing resilience during global economic turmoil. In 2010, agricultural value-added at the world level rose by 4 percent, in contrast to a 1 percent increase in overall GDP.

image UNEP/GEAS

So while population has increased by a factor of 2.3, the food available per person has increased by about 30%. Of course there are many millions who still suffer from malnutrition but this is primarily due to poverty and a failing of distribution systems. It is not the availability of food which has failed. The proportion of the population which is under-nourished continues to steadily decline.

Hunger and malnutrition

  • Almost 870 million people, or 12.5 percent of the world’s population, were undernourished in 2010-2012; the vast majority of them (852 million) live in developing countries.
  • Between 2005 and 2011, one out of four African countries reported a stunting rate of at least 40 percent. Stunting rates also exceeded 40 percent in South and South East Asia during the same period, with peaks in India, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nepal and Timor-Leste.
  • African countries show the highest rates of underweight prevalence. During 2005-­2011, 16 African countries showed underweight rates of at least 20 percent, with the highest levels recorded in the Horn of Africa.

But the economic trends would suggest a further increase of population to 10 billion by 2050 and then stabilising close to this value is surely a challenge to be met but certainly not the catastrophe that the alarmists and the doomsayers would have us believe.

World agricultural production has grown on average between 2 and 4 percent per year over the last 50 years, while the cultivated area (permanent cropland and arable land) has grown by only 1 percent annually. More than 40 percent of the increase in food production has come from irrigated areas, which have doubled in size. Not only is the land that could be brought into production unevenly distributed over a few countries, but also much of it is characterized by significant agronomic and suitability constraints. In the same period, global cultivated land per person has gradually declined from 0.44 ha to less than 0.25 ha – a clear measure of successful agricultural intensification. However, the distribution of land suitable for cropping is skewed against those countries that have most need to raise production.

Economic trends

  • Following a decade of slower growth in the 1990s, global public spending on agricultural R&D increased steadily from $26.1 billion in 2000 to $31.7 billion in 2008. Most of this increase was driven by developing countries. China and India accounted for close to half of this growth, but other countries – particularly Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Nigeria and the Russian Federation – also significantly increased their spending on public agricultural R&D. Still, these trends mask the negative developments that have taken place in numerous smaller, poorer and less technologically advanced countries.
  • Buoyed by high commodity prices, agriculture has demonstrated astonishing resilience during global economic turmoil. In 2010, agricultural value-added at the world level rose by 4 percent, in contrast to a 1 percent increase in overall GDP.

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