By Fred Pearce
There are plenty of things wrong with the world’s food system. But the amount of food it produces isn’t one of them, writes Fred Pearce.
UK chief scientist Sir John Beddington calls it ‘the perfect storm’. Soaring world population, coupled with climate change, is set to create a world food crisis and leave billions starving.
‘We are at a unique moment in history,’ he said recently, while launching a report from his Government think-tank, Foresight.
The Foresight project, Global Food and Farming Futures, says only a revolution in the way the world grows its food can save us. Clearly, David Cameron’s top boffin wants to kick-start that revolution.
The world’s population will reach seven billion this year and may peak at nine billion by mid-century. There are plenty of things wrong with the world’s food system. But the amount of food it produces isn’t one of them.
We already grow enough food to nourish nine billion people, probably 15billion people, in fact, for we eat only about one third of those crops.
Much of the global harvest feeds livestock – an inefficient route for delivering our nutrition, since it takes eight calories of grain to produce one calorie of meat.
Plenty more is diverted to make biofuels. An African could live for a year on the corn needed to fill one gas-guzzling SUV fuel tank with ethanol.
That’s not all. In the developing world, an estimated 30 per cent of the harvest is eaten by rats and insects, or rots in grain silos. We in the First World are better at preventing losses, but then we throw about 25 per cent our food away, uneaten.
The truth is that the world’s farmers could probably double the amount of food they grow – using GM crops and other technologies – and still people would go hungry. This is ultimately not about production or about human numbers, it is about poverty.
Every time there is a famine, it turns out later that someone, usually just down the road, was hoarding food for sale. The problem is that the hungry families didn’t have the cash to buy it.
Every few years we get news reports that there are only so many days’ supply of grain in the world’s warehouses. If the warehouses are full, prices fall and farmers stop producing. When they start to empty, prices rise, farmers start planting and soon the warehouses are full again.
Beddington’s ‘perfect storm’ is the operation of a perfect market. Does this mis-diagnosis matter? Even if we grow enough food, surely growing more can’t hurt.
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