Episode 3: Food: There’s lots of it

Are people hungry because there’s not enough food on Planet Earth, or is the answer more complex?

Who says there is enough food for everyone?

Both of the world’s leading authorities on food distribution (the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] and the World Food Programme [WFP]) are very clear: there is more than enough food for everyone on the planet. The FAO neatly summarizes the problem of starvation, saying that “the world currently produces enough food for everybody, but many people do not have access to it.” Food is a lot like money: just because some people have none doesn’t mean that there isn’t enough of it–it’s just spread unevenly.

What do you mean when you say we are producing more food on less land?

Exactly that. Thanks to continuing increases in crop yields, the world’s farmers are harvesting hundreds of millions of tons more grain each year on tens of millions acres less land than they did in the 1970s and ’80s. For instance, according to USDA figures, the world was producing 1.9 million metric tons of grain from 579.1 hectares of land (a hectare is 2.47 acres) in 1976. In 2004, we got 3.1 million metric tons of grain from only 517.9 hectares of land. This is quite a jump.

This is not to say that we won’t possibly need to dedicate more land to farming in the future. The point is, a rise in population is not always matched by a rise in the amount of land required to feed that population.

Download the data on world grain production from the FAO website.

The U.S. government pays farmers not to grow food?

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s web site, “the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective manner.” What this means is that the government has created a fund to allow farmers to give their land “time off” from growing crops. This is done by “renting” the land from the farmers, so that things like grass and trees can be planted there instead of crops. This helps prevent soil erosion and encourages wildlife habitats, and reduces sedimentation in streams and lakes.

The upshot of this is that our nation would never be able to afford to do this if we were anywhere near maxing out our food growing capabilities. Our current food surplus means that we are able to give some of our farmland back to the wild, instead of frantically using it all to feed a supposedly exploding population.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program

List of payments to date from the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program

Where has barren land been turned fertile?

Lots of places. Northeast Thailand and parts of Brazil, for example, were once considered inhospitable farming environments. According to the FAO, these places had disadvantages like “unreliable rainfall patterns, poor soils and a high population density in the case of Thailand; and remoteness, soils prone to acidity and toxicity and low population in the case of the Cerrado [Brazil].”

In both countries, the government was able to help farmers overcome these obstacles. This was done through methods like better irrigation, adding nutrients and chemicals to make the soil more suitable for planting, and finding crops that would adapt well to the local environment.

This was so effective in the case of Brazil that that country is now considered an agricultural superpower–largely due to farming on the “unfarmable” Cerrado.

Coverage by the Food and Agriculture Organization
Coverage by The New York Times

Africa could feed the world?

Theoretically, it wouldn’t even require all of Africa. According to a 2009 report published by the FAO, about 400 million hectares of African savannah are quite suitable for farming–but only 10 percent of that
land is currently cultivated. Called the Guinea Savannah Zone, this stretch of arable land winds through 25 African countries. And, even though Africa has a dire history of war and unstable government, things have recently begun to look up for many of these nations, which means this land is more likely to be cultivated in the future.

According to the FAO, “Africa is better placed today to achieve rapid development in agriculture than either northeast Thailand or the Cerrado when their agricultural transformation took off in 1980 . . . There are a number of reasons for this: rapid economic, population and urban growth providing diverse and ample domestic markets; favourable domestic policy environments, improved business climates in many countries; increased foreign and domestic investment in agriculture; and the use of new technologies.”

What does this mean? In the short term, fewer starving Africans. In the long term, possibly an incredible source of food for the rest of the world.

Guinea Savannah Zone — by the Food and Agriculture Organization
Africa’s Sleeping Giant — by The World Bank

How does blaming overpopulation for things distract from the real problems?

Since overpopulation isn’t the cause of hunger, “fixing” overpopulation won’t fix these problems. In fact, the obsession with overpopulation often leads to precious aid money being spent on population control rather than real aid. “Family planning” programs miss the real point, especially in places like Africa–which is that the people need legitimate, concrete aid.