Population Matters

Observing, not Celebrating, World Food Day

October 16th, 2009

Today, we join the United Nations in observing World Food Day.

Ten years ago, World Food Day was a cause for celebration.  Hunger and malnutrition were in retreat.  World grain reserves were adequate enough to feed the world. Richard Hoehn, Director of the Bread for the World Institute, boldly declared that “the end of hunger is within reach,” and predicted that it could be eliminated within 15 years.

Today, global hunger is again on the march.  Bread for the World now reports that, “The world has witnessed a dramatic reversal in the progress against hunger and poverty…”  And a few days ago, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported that the recent food crisis and the global economic downturn have pushed the number of hungry and malnourished in the world past the one billion mark for the first time in history.  Hunger, it warned, has been increasingly steadily for the past decade.

But the most sobering news of all came this week when the FAO issued its latest long range forecast. If global population, as currently projected, reaches 9.1 billion by 2050, the FAO says that world food production will need to rise by 70%, and in the developing world food production needs to double.

And that may be an optimistic assessment. The FAO’s forecast, as the report acknowledges, does not take into account any increase in agricultural production for biofuels.  But FAO itself has projected that biofuel production by 2030 alone will require 35 million hectares of land–an area about the size of France and Spain combined.

Stopping the advance of hunger may be one of the greatest challenges that the world faces today.  Keep in mind that these jumps in food production will have to occur despite rising energy prices, growing depletion of underground aquifers, the continuing loss of farmland to urbanization, and increased drought and flooding due to climate change.

The FAO estimates that doubling food production in the developing world by midcentury alone will require an average annual net investment of US$83 billion dollars (in 2009 dollars).  That translates into a 50% increase over current investment levels, and that does not include funds that may be needed to build roads and large scale irrigation projects.

And to make the challenge even more daunting, we will have to expand food production while dramatically lowering global greenhouse gas emissions.  Historically, the production and distribution of food has been a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  The large increase in the use of nitrogen fertilizer for the production of crops like corn has dramatically increased the emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.  The world’s growing appetite for beef is contributing to a rise in another deadly greenhouse gas:  methane.  The demand for new farmland is a major contributor to deforestation.  And then, of course, there’s the oil that’s consumed by all the tractors and trucks engaged in food production and distribution.

Looking at the long-range FAO forecast, our only hope may be that the U.N.’s population projection is never realized. If we can educate and empower women in developing countries, expand voluntary family planning services, and encourage parents everywhere to think about having smaller families, it’s still possible that global population will stop short of the 9.1. billion mark now projected by the U.N.

Otherwise, there will no be reason to celebrate future World Food Days.

USAID/Afghanistan

USAID/Afghanistan

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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