Must the World Starve?

Today is blog action day, and I signed up to write a post about this year’s issue, food. I had the usual good intentions of doing some research for the topic, but now find myself running out of time to make a contribution. To be honest I should be doing something more productive still and attending one of the Oxfam fundraisers for the horn of Africa happening at restaurants around Melbourne (and I imagine the world). Better not to bore you with excuses.

When one talks about the topic of food in the medium to long term there are two main schools of thought. One argues that we are now better fed (or at least have the capacity to be better fed if we didn’t prefer junk) than any previous generation. Famine still stalks regions of the world, but they’re decreasing regions. Optimists project this to continue.

On the other sider are the problems we have to overcome. The world population will increase by around 50% over the next few decades. As regions like China become wealthier demand for meat will rise, requiring the use of many times as much grain to feed the animals as the meat actually produced. All this in a world with decreasing ground water, more polluted surface water, increasingly erratic weather and degraded topsoil.

Given the way I’ve set this up you can probably tell I agree with neither. I think there is a very great chance that we will see much more famine in future years, with the decades either side of the millennium looked back on as a golden time, when starvation was relatively rare.

But if we do, it won’t be so much because of the issues mentioned above, but because another, much older reason for famine. Indeed the main reason for famine for many centuries: Inequality. Once people starved because a bad season meant there was not enough food. The poor may have starved first, but if a region was isolated and did not produce enough everyone would suffer. That hasn’t really been the issue for a long time. During the Irish famine grain was exported to England under armed guard. There was enough food, but the poor could not afford it. The situation has been similar more recently.

The danger for the world is not that we will not produce enough, but that we will waste it, either feeding it to animals because they taste better than what we feed them, or simply buying too much and throwing it out. If we actually used our crops efficiently we could feed many times the world’s population. Even if the ratio drops in future, I doubt we will ever produce less than the amount needed to feed everyone.

The rate of productivity growth has fallen for food production, but a couple of new technologies could change that. One is the idea of producing meat in a test tube, which got a lot of publicity a couple of months ago after an article in New Scientist. Less known is the idea of using algae as a food source. My next Cool Scientist is Dr Kirsten Heimann. She’s investigating capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and feeding it to algae to encourage them to grow. Besides removing CO2 (at least until the algae breaks down) this can be used to produce biofuels, but Heimann says that some of the algae she is working with taste like “salty tofu” and are even higher in protein and omega-3s.

Programs like second harvest address the second issue, and although this is just at the margins it may grow. The problem of meat consumption is being confronted, not only by rising vegetarianism, but by the improving quality of meat substitutes. I ate a meal of imitation chicken tonight, and while it didn’t taste quite like the real thing, it was a lot closer than what was available when I first became semi-vegetarian.

The problem is that if inequality rises we may see ever more of the world’s resources devoted to making endlessly exciting dishes for the jaded palates of the super-rich, making it a lot harder to feed everyone else. Trends in global inequality are debateable, but there is no doubt that within the developed world things have got much worse. Whether or not the Occupiers of Wall St represent the 99%, they’ve got the stat right, with 1% taking most of the gains in American wealth in recent years. If this trend spreads worldwide we’ve got a real problem.

A problem whose fix is inevitably, and almost entirely, political not technical.


Yes, yes, there are lots of links I should included and have not got to. Might have to do that after Blog Action Day.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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