How we could feed the world

Last updated: December 2001, U.K.

The extent to which malnourishment and death from starvation still pervades human society is made clear by statistics, such as the following:

In 1994, the United Nations estimated that one eighth of people were actually starving.(1) “Millions are constantly hungry; while others suffer from deficiency diseases and from infections they would be able to resist on a better diet.”(2)

In the year 200, the World Bank estimated that 840 million people do not have enough food to eat. An estimated 2 billion people lack sufficient iron in their diets, with 1.2 billion suffering from iron-deficiency anemia.(22)

The 2001 Human Development Report includes figures from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (F.A.O.) showing that, in the world’s least developed countries, 38% of the population were undernourished in the 1996-8 period. (See and 

In terms of sheer numbers, there are more chronically hungry people in Asia and the Pacific, but the depth of hunger is clearly the greatest in sub-Saharan Africa. There, in 46 percent of the countries, the undernourished have an average deficit of more than 300 kilocalories per person per day.(3) 

As has been written in The Observer newspaper in London, if 100 jumbo jets crashed tomorrow, killing all on board, the world would be united in mourning, but every day, a similar number of people die of hunger-related diseases, almost without mention.

Such statistics are widely available. Many see them as evidence that the planet is overpopulated. The sheer, undiminishing size of these statistics leaves them as something that is ‘accepted’ as part of life in the modern world. The problem is simply too huge for us to do anything about, it seems, and reflection on the subject often ends here.

Yet there are other, undeniably significant statistics to suggest that malnutrition and starvation are far from inevitable, given the resources and productive capacity we have available. These are the statistics which are slightly less widely disseminated:

It is a fact that enough food to feed the world is currently produced. 300 kg of grain per head is currently produced worldwide each year. 200 kg of grain contains the calories needed by an adult per year. (Grain is widely used as a measure of food production as it supplies more than half humanity`s calories.)

The 5.8 billion people in the world today have, on average, 15 percent more food per person than the global population, of 4 billion people, had 20 years ago.(4)

The world today produces enough grain to provide 3500 calories per person (this estimate does not include vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meets, fish.)(23)

It is the poverty of millions of people who cannot afford to buy food that causes starvation. This conclusion has been reached by Vaclav Smil in a recent study entitled Feeding the World(29). An F.A.O. study by Nikos Alexandratos confirms this point. He writes

Food availabilities for the world as a whole are today equivalent to some 2700 kilocalories per person per day …., up from 2300 calories 30 years ago.(28)

It has been recognised by a wide range of other commentators:

food is not fairly shared; it goes to those who can afford it or have the means to grow it.(5)

Famine exists largely because the hungry cannot afford to buy food, not because there is insufficient food produced.(6)

In none of the twentieth century famines has there been an absolute shortage of food; the problem has been unequal access due to poverty, a problem that resort to food aid has not solved. In Bengal in 1943-1944 about three million people died after rice prices quadrupled in two years. Worst affected were the rural areas, where wages had not kept pace with wartime inflation, and some towns where workers were unemployed because of the dislocation caused by the war. People without money were unable to buy food and the British imperial authorities took little action (apart from moving food to Calcutta because they feared mass civil unrest). One of the worst famines of modern times therefore took place when the amount of food per head in Bengal was actually 7% higher than in 1941 and food stocks were at record levels. In Ethiopia, in 1972-1974, about 200,000 people died in the provinces of Wollo and Tigre even though the country’s food production only fell by just over 5% – during this period food was still being exported from the affected provinces and from the country as a whole. In Bangladesh in 1974 when rice prices doubled in three months after severe flooding, those who were out of work because of the disruption caused by the floods could not afford to buy food. As a result one and a half million people died of starvation. But there was no absolute shortage of food – production of rice in Bangladesh, both in total and per head terms, was the highest ever in 1974 – once again it was a problem of who had the resources to buy food at higher prices.(7)

In South Africa around 50,000 black children starve to death each year – 136 every day. Yet South Africa is a net exporter of agricultural products.(8)

There are many more examples. In 1983, the value of food exported by countries in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda) exceeded their imports by $1 billion. Yet hunger in these countries increased.(25)

Much food is currently stored or destroyed when ‘too much’ food is produced. This means too much for the market as it is only the demands of those with purchasing power that counts. Restricting the food supply in this way keeps prices high enough for producers to maximise their profits:

in one season, French peasant co-ops were paid to destroy fruit and vegetables the weight of 17 Arcs de Triomph(9)

Around 240 million tonnes of grain are stored worldwide in order to keep the price high. That would provide every human being with 3600 calories a day(10)

So what are the prospects for the future? If grain production continues to increase at the current rate of 12 million tonnes per year then by 2020 the world harvest will be 2.1 billion tones. Population is expected to be 8.5 billion in 2020. That gives a figure of 247 kilogrammes per person. In 2050, if production grows at the same rate and population grows to only 10 billion, we will still have 244 kilogrammes per person.(11) However, the rate of growth in world food production is starting to fall. Before 1984, total production climbed 3 per cent per year; now this averages 1 per cent per year.(12) This leaves open the question as to whether enough food will always be produced to feed everyone.

Some commentators have viewed such statistics as pointing to an inevitable world food shortage occurring during the next century. They cite examples such as China where it is expected that grain imports will need to rise from the current 12 million tonnes per year at present to 100 million tonnes by the year 2000.(13) 

It has often been suggested that reducing the scale of meat production is one particular measure that will be necessary to provide enough food for the increasing population. It is indeed the case that growing crops for use as animal feed in order to produce meat requires a relatively large area of land for each unit of energy in the food produced. It is a well established fact that crops that are grown directly for human consumption yield more energy for a given area of land than meat production. 

Vaclav Smil at M.I.T. has recently studied the question of how much potential there is to expand global food production. According to Smil, the best possible estimate of the land area currently in use for food production is approximately 1.5 Gha (i.e. one thousand thousand hectares – a hectare is 10,000 square metres.) With a global population of 10 million, this would be 1500 square metres per person. This, he points out is enough for a daily supply of 2500 kilocalories per capita, based upon what he describes as “moderately intensive” single crop farming with products composed largely of dairy products, poultry and pork (the more efficient animal products in terms
of calories produced per unit of land.) 

Smil notes that beef production is particularly inefficient in these terms and so, according to Smil, high shares of beef could double the above requirement to 3000 square metres per capita. The relative inefficiency of meat production (and especially the inefficient forms such as beef) is therefore a potentially important issue for world food production and will become increasingly so as the world population increases. 

While it is important to consider studies such as those of Smil, it should be remembered that such future projections often fail to take account of the potential offered by alternative productive techniques and technologies that could be developed further. As will all other forms of production under capitalism, profit is currently the primary motivation behind food production (Why Profit Gets Priority) As a consequence, actual production levels are by no means equivalent to potential production levels. Here are some reasons why:

Much land currently under use has poorly maintained irrigation and is therefore not used to its full potential. Problems such as soil erosion and desertification result from unsustainable agricultural practices. Roughly 70% of the 5.2 billion hectares of dry lands used for agriculture in world is at risk of being turned into deserts.(24) These unsustainable practices are, of course, symptoms of the inherent short-termism of capitalism.

As J.Simon points out in The Ultimate Resource 2 ,”better storage facilities… would cut the perhaps 15-25 percent loss to pests and rot every year;” (14)

There is huge potential to expand research into developing more productive, environmentally sound agriculture. Between 1981-85, developed nations spent less than $5 billion on agricultural research.(15)

One example of a sector with huge scope for increasing production is the harvesting of food and raw materials from the oceans. As outlined by S.Gulbrandson at the ENS 1995 conference on sustainable food production:

The oceans cover twice as much of the earth as the terrestrial areas, and receive more than twice as much solar energy.(16)

The ocean contains nutrients like salts and other forms of minerals, and enzymes for catalytic synthesis of biological material. By adding such nutrients in the right proportion and by controlling the ratios, the ocean may be used to produce basic material for food production on a scale that surpasses all hitherto known systems for that purpose.(17)

Another area with huge scope for development is hydroponic farming. This kind of farming is described by P. Salsbury in a paper for the Hydroponic Society of America:

hydroponics focuses on growing plants without soil. Plant roots are grown in a medium such as gravel, sand, or a fibrous material called “rock wool” through which nutrient-rich solutions flow, usually at timed intervals. The solutions can be customized to deliver specific nutrients for specific crops. This allows the plant to extract exactly what nutrients it needs, allows the roots time to breathe when the solution is drained away between cycles, and also allows any plant-wastes to be flushed away with the solution, so that there is no toxic buildup around the roots. This combination of techniques allows for extraordinary results when compared to traditional soil-based farming(26)

Howard Resh, in an introductory book on the subject has detailed the potential productive gains from hydroponics:

Crop Soil Soilless
Soya 600 lb 1550 lb
Beans 5 tons 21 tons
Peas 1 ton 9 tons
Wheat 600 lb 4100 lb
Rice 1000 lb 5000 lb
Oats 1000 lb 2500 lb
Beets 4 tons 12 tons
Potatoes 8 tons 70 tons
Cabbage 13,000 lb 18,000 lb
Lettuce 9000 lb 21,000 lb
Tomatoes 5-10 tons 60-300 tons
Cucumbers 7000 lb 28,000 lb

Simon illustrates the potential of this exciting new technology as follows:

“In De Kalb, Illinois, Noel Davis’s PhytoFarm produces food – mainly lettuce and other garden vegetables – in a factory measuring 200 feet by 250 feet – 50,000 square feet, one acre, – at a ton of food per day – enough to completely feed 500 or 1000 people.(18)

“PhytoFarm techniques could feed a hundred times the world’s present population – say 500 billion people – with factory buildings a hundred stories high, on 1 percent of oresent farmland.”(19)

The earth could, in theory, feed very many more people than now inhabit the globe.(20)

This fettering of production – with such disastrous consequences – is another key argument for the abolition of money and the market and the establishment instead of a system based on production solely for use. Socialism would allow us to develop and implement methods of food production with two simple questions in mind:

Which methods will best meet our needs? The question of ‘how can we maximise profits?’ currently gets priority. Food will only be produced if there is a market for it – i.e. people with the money to buy it. The needs of those without money do not count. The assumption that food will only be produced for markets pervades the debate about whether the world can be fed. Of course, given our current profit-orientated social system, there are going to be continual problems. But this does not mean that the potential is not there for us to solve them, once production is directly for need.

Which methods are sustainable? Environmentalists rightly show how many of our current productive methods are not ‘sustainable’ in that they damage the environment for future generations. For example, they now advocate a range of farm practices designed to reduce the need for high inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Integrated plant nutrition with a combination of organic and mineral sources of soil nutrients with tillage and crop rotation can increase crop production; and integrated pest management (IPM) reduces the need for chemical pesticides by making use of biological controls to minimise disease and damage by pests.(21) Such methods could only be used to their full when we remove the market forces that drive producers to the short-term, cheap methods. This short-termism has prevented progress on a whole range of environmental issues.

Author: DG

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  • (1) Practical Ethics – P.Singer (1994)
  • (2) Practical Ethics – P.Singer (1994) p218
  • (3)
  • (4) Report of the inter-sessional working group of the committee on world food security (29th July – 2nd August 1996)
  • (5) John Madely, The Observer
  • (6) New Scientist (3/9/94)
  • (7) Green History of the World – Clive Ponting
  • (8) Socialist Review (December 1994)
  • (9) The Guardian (4/5/96)
  • (10) Socialist Review (December 1994)
  • (11) New Scientist (3/9/94)
  • (12) New Scientist (3/9/94)
  • (13) New Scientist (3/9/94)
  • (14) The Ultimate Resource 2 – J.Simon, Princeton University Press, 1996
  • (15) Socialist Review (December 1994)
  • (16) Prospects for New Technologies in Sustainable Food Production, ENS ’95 Conference Seminar Paper – S.Gulbrandsen
  • (17) Prospects for New Technologies in Sustainable Food Production, ENS ’95 Conference Seminar Paper – S.Gulbrandsen
  • (18) The Ultimate Resource 2 – J.Simon, Princeton University Press, 1996, p101
  • (19) The Ultimate Resource 2 – J.Simon, Princeton University Press, 1996, p102
  • (20) Dimensions of Need – An Atlas of Food and Agriculture (FAO 1995) p50
  • (21) Dimensions of Need – An Atlas of Food and Agriculture (FAO 1995) p34
  • (22) Food in the 21st Century, from Science to Sustainable Agriculture – Maurice Strong and Meherdra Shah(World Bank 2000)
  • (23) World Hunger: Twelve Myths – Frances Moore Lappe et al (Earthscan 1998)
  • (24) World Hunger: Twelve Myths – Frances Moore Lappe et al (Earthscan 1998)
  • (25) World Hunger: Twelve Myths – Frances Moore Lappe et al (Earthscan 1998)
  • (26) >Hydroponics and Housing for the 21st Century – Patrick G. Salsbury (Presented Sunday, June 30th, 1996 Hydroponic Society of America – 17th Annual Conference, San Jose, California, USA)
  • (27) Hydroponic Food Production – A Definitive Guidebook for the Advanced Home Gardener and the Commercial Hydroponic Grower Fourth Edition, (c) 1991 – Howard M. Resh, Ph.D. (Woodbridge Press Publishing Company)
  • (28) World Agriculture: Towards 2010, An F.A.O. study  – Nikos Alexandratos(ed), (F.A.O. 1995)
  • (29) Feeding the World – Vaclav Smil (M.I.T. Press, 2000)

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