Global Food Scarcity: Definition, Distribution, Roadblocks

By Jaclyn Tan
(Based on an interview by Nicole Konen)

"One of the reasons we talk about food scarcity and world hunger is that we recognize there are countries of the world, even today- where people for whatever reasons, cannot provide for themselves," said Dennis Conley, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

A shortage of food may happen when not enough food is produced, such as when crops fail due to drought, pests, or too much moisture. But the problem can also result from the uneven distribution of natural resource endowment for a country, and by human institutions, such as government and public policy, he said.

Food- calories and distribution

Food scarcity may exist at an individual level, a city level, state level, nation level, continent level, or even a global level, Conley said.

The World Trade Organization estimates that if total calories from all the food produced were divided among all the people on earth, there would be 2,750 calories per person per day. Since the recommended daily minimum per person is 2,100 calories a day, there are enough calories to feed everyone in the world. But not everyone is getting the need calories and food because it's "not evenly distributed across the landscape of the world," Conley said.

Food scarcity on a global level: natural resource endowments and human institutions

cattleFrom country to country, the production and distribution of food is influenced by two variables: natural resource endowments and human institutions, he said. The natural resource endowment of a country can include such things as forests, water, fertile land, ore deposits, and a diversity of wildlife. The amount of natural resources a country has determines how much a country can produce for its own people. Human institutions, such as government, public policy and aid organizations, not only set up systems to produce and distribute food, but also to import and export food if there are shortages or excesses.

Conley said some countries, such as Thailand, have both abundant natural resources and efficient human institutions to manage these resources. Thailand produces more than enough rice to feed its own population, so it exports the surplus. "Thailand is a developing country, but it has the natural resource endowments and the human institutions in place to take care of their population."

When the natural resource endowment of a country falls short, human institutions can step in to reduce a scarcity of food. For example, Conley said, Japan is an industrialized and developed economy. "But they do not have enough arable land to produce the food, primarily rice, to feed all of their people. And they know that." So the Japanese government- the human institution in this case, he said- provides substantial subsidies and incentives for farmers to grow rice. That way, the country doesn't have to be as dependent on other countries for rice, which is a staple food in Japan.

In the same way, Conley said, the government of Mexico imports corn because it knows the country's natural resources cannot produce enough corn for the population. India and China also import a lot of food to meet their food needs because they have such large populations relative to their natural resource endowment, he said.

Roadblocks in human institution intervention

Sometimes other factors make it hard for human institutions to take intervening action to lessen food scarcity. War is one example, as in the case of Somalia, Conley said. Food may not reach certain areas of the country due to fighting and armed conflict, so food scarcity is a problem there, he said.

Another issue with reducing food scarcity on a national level is each country's sovereignty. Even if there were food scarcity issues in a certain country, such as Somalia, "a country has sovereignty over their geographic region and their people," Conley said. So an outside agent like the World Trade Organization or other humanitarian organizations can't help unless the country grants them permission to do so.

Human institutions and food production

Although there may be enough food being produced in the world now, that may not be the case in the future as the world population increases to a projected nine billion by 2050. Conley said technology will be the key in increasing food production. "The amount of land available to do that is limited," he said. "It's got to be technology that does it."

But human institutions often are slow to respond to change, Conley said. For example, seed companies can use genetic modification technology to create higher yield seeds within three years, he said, but it takes up to an additional four to seven years to get U.S. and foreign government approval to market the seeds because they're genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. "My own personal opinion is, it takes too long," he said.


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