World Food Supply Adequate, but Poverty is the Problem

World Food Supply Adequate, but Poverty is the Problem

Based on an interview by Nicole Konen

Currently, there are about a billion people in the world who are malnourished- but it's not because the world food supply isn't adequate, it's because they are too poor to buy food, said Wes Peterson, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"I think a better way to approach the problem of hunger, rather than trying to think about it as a production problem, is to think about it as a problem of poverty," he said. "Reducing poverty is the way we'll get those people to be fed."

Demographers predict the world population will grow from its current seven billion to more than nine billion people by 2050, creating a substantial increase in the demand for food. People in developing countries are expected to become wealthier and in addition to consuming more food, their desire for higher-quality food, such as livestock products, will increase.

The percentage of the global population living in poverty in developing countries has fallen from 46 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2005. It is on track to drop to 23 percent by 2015, Peterson said.

"The problem is that within that very poor group of people there's a very, very poor group and those are the ones that make up about 14 or 15 percent of the world that is malnourished," he said. There are almost a billion people in this group, based on today's world population of seven billion.

Today's food production can feed the world

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that the number of calories available daily on a per-capita basis (the average number of calories per person) is about 2,800. Those 2,800 calories per person per day are enough for everyone in the world to be adequately nourished.

There are two ways to think about hunger and whether the world is running out of food, Peterson said.

First, will the world be able to generate enough food to feed the larger 2050 population with the same amount of food insecurity (12-15 percent)?

Second, will the world be able to feed the 2050 population with lower levels of food insecurity, or perhaps eliminate food insecurity altogether?

"It will take larger increases in food production if at the same time we want to reduce food insecurity from its current levels," he said.

The FAO estimated in 2010 that 13.5% of the world population was food-insecure. That amounted to 925 million people in 2010 who were undernourished, compared to 1969-1971, when the FAO estimated that 26 percent, or 878 million people, were undernourished. Food insecurity is defined by the United Nations as chronic inability to procure enough food to be adequately nourished.


BNSF railroad and grain elevatorsThe world population will grow and with income growth, there will be a substantial increase in food demand, Peterson said. If output doesn't increase, food prices will rise. This is true globally- and global food supplies and prices clearly have effects in individual countries. However, for an individual country today, when enough food is produced in the world to feed everyone, food shortages can be counteracted by international trade. Trade, however, can be impeded by transportation costs, government policies and cultural differences.

"There are two kinds of barriers," Peterson said. First, food products have to be moved over distances, from where they're grown to where they're consumed and these transportation costs are added to food prices at the supermarket. Transportation has become much less of a barrier over the years, Peterson said. Efficiencies in the shipping of products have lowered transportation costs in many cases.

Much of today's trade in food and agricultural products is in high-value goods such as meat and dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables and alcoholic beverages. These goods generally contain a lot of water and are perishable, making them costly to transport, Peterson said. Historically, these goods were not widely traded internationally because of these factors, but today they are, which supports the conclusion that transportation costs have declined.

The second kind of barriers, Peterson said, are the ones that are imposed by governments.

"For most things, trade barriers have been reduced since the second world war, but agriculture's the exception," Peterson said. For example, in Europe, there is a requirement that any genetically-modified commodities have a label so they can be recognized. "That adds to the cost and it's kind of a trade barrier," he said. There also are many more obvious trade barriers, such as import tariffs and export taxes that impede the flow of food and agricultural goods.

Climate, environment

Climate variability could cause supply problems, Peterson said, citing recent examples of droughts in Australia, floods in Thailand and fires in the Russian steppes. The Russian fires destroyed almost the entire wheat crop, he said. Although technology can't counteract fire, researchers are developing plant hybrids that are adapted to the variable climate.

"I'm an optimist," Peterson said. "I think that we will probably put enough resources into research to be able to come up with new technologies." These new technologies will help counteract some of the climate problems, such as drought. Genetic modification of crops is unpopular in some parts of the world, he said. However, technological innovation is going to be essential, both to feed people and protect the environment- and these things are possible, he said, with research.

"Our whole (UNL) Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources- most of the folks here are working on a wide range of research projects that will lead to increased output in both crops and livestock products," he said.

"I do think that we can increase food output without destroying the environment, but it's going to take some effort. It's going to take some research; it's going to take some technological innovation and it'll have to take some awareness of the problem," he said.


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