Saturday, December 03, 2016

Scarcity in an Age of Plenty

Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the supply of food in the world today. Increases in food production has outstripped the world's population growth. Even most "hungry” countries have enough food for all their people right now. While millions of Indians go hungry," India exports wheat and flour, and  millions of tons of rice , the two staples of the Indian diet. Scientists and politicians describe the situation as complicated and complex. It isn’t, once we free ourselves from the myth of scarcity and begin to look for hunger's real causes.

The world has long produced enough calories, around 2,700 per day per human, more than enough to meet the United Nations projection of a population of nine billion in 2050, up from the current seven billion. The world produces more than just enough to go round. Allowing for all the food that could be eaten but is turned into biofuels, and the staggering amounts wasted on the way, farmers are already producing much more than is required—more than twice the minimum nutritional needs by some measures. If there is a food problem, it does not look like a technical one. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, concluded that the main reason for famines is not a shortage of basic food. Other factors—wages, distribution, even democracy—matter more.

Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and should plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall availability of calories per person has increased. The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), a research organization, predicts a world population peak of 9.4 billion in 2070.

Africa’s population could quadruple to four billion by 2100, the United Nations estimates. Wolfgang Lutz, program director for world population at the IIASA, disputes this figure. He said young women across Africa are better educated today than older generations which should lead to a decline in fertility and research shows that educated women tend to have fewer children and later in life.
"The U.N. models are based on statistical extrapolations based on past trends, without looking at education," Lutz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Education has been proved to impact birth rates. Faced with high birthrates and overcrowding in the 1970s, authorities in Bangladesh, one the world's most densely populated countries, introduced family planning education, including door-to-door advice, and access to contraception. The birthrate dropped to 2.3 children per woman today from more than 6 children in 1971.

John Bongaarts, director of the Population Council in New York, explained “I don't think we will run out of food, but continued high prices mean poor people will go hungry."

In 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares — mostly from Latin America and Africa — without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanization. Many countries can make gains in productivity just by improving the use of existing technologies and practices.

With its plentiful sun, water and land, Brazil is quickly surpassing other countries in food production and exports. By far the largest potential for increasing production is in pastures, which in Brazil cover more than 200 million hectares, according to some estimates — nearly a quarter of the country, or an area three times the size of France. Brazilian ranchers on average raise just over one cow per hectare of land, but many well-managed pastures, with better grass production, carry three, four or even five cows per hectare. The situation is slowly getting better; over the past decade, pasture in the Amazon region has increased by 30% and the number of cattle has increased by 80%. Squeezing the current cattle population onto half as much pasture — which is possible from a technical stand point — would free up enough land to more than double grain production, without cutting down a single tree.

But even in countries where populations are growing fast, experts said hunger could be eliminated if resources were better utilized. In the U.S., animals are fed more than 80 percent of the corn grown and more than 95 percent of the oats. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people—more than the entire human population on Earth.

Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize-winning economist and Harvard professor, observed, “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.”

South African arch-bishop Desmond Tutu said, “Hunger is not an incurable disease or an unavoidable tragedy. We can make sure no child goes to bed hungry. We can stop mothers from starving themselves to feed their families. We can save lives. We can do all of this, IF we are prepared to do something about it.”

“There is enough food in the world for everyone, but it would appear that the willingness to do what is needed to end hunger is just not there,” says Rafael Pampillon, a professor of economics at the IE Business School in Madrid, who studies development issues.

“On Planet Earth live almost seven billion people – but yearly we produce food that could feed 12 billion people” explained the founder of the Slow Food Movement Carlo Petrini.

50 percent of all fruits and vegetables, 40 percent of roots and tubers, and 20 percent of all cereals—is lost in substandard storage or transit, or left on the farm, in what is called post-harvest loss. And those statistics do not even take into account what is wasted on the plate or tossed away into the bin by consumers, nor the waste of water, land, fertilizer, labor, and other inputs that went into food production.

Producing enough food for the world's population in 2050 will be easy. But doing it at an acceptable cost to the planet will depend on research into everything from high-tech seeds to low-tech farming practices. All agricultural researchers are talking about is intensification, no-tillage agriculture, about crop rotation and agroforestry. Ways, in other words, to feed the world without levelling the forests. This isn’t about “organic” versus “modern.” It’s about supporting the system in which small producers make decisions based on their knowledge and experience of their farms in the landscape, as opposed to buying standardized technological fixes. Some people call this knowledge-based rather than energy-based agriculture, but obviously it takes plenty of energy and much of that is human energy. The goal of food distribution is not only to connect the producers, such as farmers and fishermen, to consumers, but also to allocate the food accordingly.

However, we have to face one possibility and that is climate change. A warming planet leads to less food. According to the IPCC's report from 2014, every decade of warming that happens decreases the amount of food the world can produce by 2%, or 4.4 million metric tons of food. Droughts cut back on the food produced. The California drought is an example of how the climate affects food and how much access people have to it. The USDA noted in June that "depending on its continued severity, the drought in California has the potential to drive prices for fruit, vegetables, dairy, and eggs up even further." Flooding decreases the amount of available land for farming. If the Mississippi and Missouri rivers flood, it would cut corn production in the US by 27%, soybeans by 19%, and wheat by 7%, according to the institute's scenario. That's about 3.8 billion bushels of corn lost, based on the amount of corn produced in the US in 2014. More frequent extreme weather makes it harder to have a reliable crop yield. Tornadoes, torrential downpours, etc. cause damage to lands that otherwise contain crops. An increasing amount of these weather events — a result of climate change — makes it harder to rely on a steady supply of food, thus driving up prices on all that remains. All of these weather crises could lead to a food crisis and increased global food insecurity.

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