Current World Food Production is Enough to Feed 10 Billion People, Starvation isn’t Profitable to Solve?
Amid election primary policy debates in December 2019, a post about current world food production being sufficient to feed more than three times the world’s population circulated on Facebook in screenshot form:
Labeled “when you accidentally have a good idea,” the screenshot showed two tweets — one from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky), and a response from Twitter user @MrMaxwellmusic.
On November 29 2018, Massie joked about #FoodStampsForAll, proposing that if “healthcare is a right, is food as well?”
How long until someone runs on the platform of #FoodStampsForAll ?
If healthcare is a right, is food as well?
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) November 29, 2018
The second tweet was published the same day. Notably, it cut off after “Starvation exists because it isn’t profitable to solve,” and contained additional commentary about commodification of food distribution:
Current world food production makes enough to feed 10 billion people, about two and a half billion more than currently live. Starvation exists because it isn't profitable to solve.
By decommodifying food we remove the profit motive and allow for efficient distribution. https://t.co/ybj2UbxGml
— Mx. Maxwell Ⓐ Bottom 1% of Bandcamp (@MxMaxwellmusic) November 29, 2018
In full, the response tweet read:
Current world food production makes enough to feed 10 billion people, about two and a half billion more than currently live. Starvation exists because it isn’t profitable to solve.
By decommodifying food we remove the profit motive and allow for efficient distribution.
Perhaps the simplest aspect of the claim had to do with total world population, described as two-and-a-half billion fewer than ten billion, or 7.5 billion. That figure was accurate in 2018 (where figures were based on 2017 estimates), and again in 2019 (based on 2018 estimates.) According to figures from the World Bank, the estimated population as of 2017 was 7.51 billion and 7.59 billion for 2018, an increase of 1.1 percent year over year.
A number of articles examined food supply projections for 2050; by then, the United Nations projected, the world population would increase by nearly 29 percent, to 9.8 billion. A March 2018 article about food production in TIME about food supply noted that sufficient quantities of food were produced to feed everyone in the world, but 11 percent of the population endured hunger in 2016:
The world currently produces more than enough food to feed everyone, yet 815 million people (roughly 11% of the global population) went hungry in 2016, according to the U.N.
A July 2012 editorial in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture referenced some of the points made in the second tweet — that then-current food production was sufficient to feed one and a half times the number of people on Earth, and could feed the projected 2050 population of 9.8 billion people:
Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2009a, 2009b) the world produces more than 1 1/2times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s already enough to feed 10 billion people, the world’s 2050 projected population peak. But the people making less than $2 a day—most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating un-viably small plots of land—cannot afford to buy this food.
Immediately thereafter, the editorial pointed out some nuanced background about those estimates — such as the use of crops for fuel and agriculture rather than for food:
In reality, the bulk of industrially produced grain crops (most yield reduction in the study was found in grains) goes to biofuels and conﬁned animal feedlots rather than food for the one billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.
Finding the underlying citation was less straightforward, buried as it was in annual United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports on world hunger. Those reports do not seem to directly say whether world food production in and of itself is sufficient to feed current or future populations — instead, hunger was addressed within the context of far more complex issues like agriculture, sustainable farming, supply chain, and distribution.
In fact, the same FAO cited in the editorial’s 2009 report “How to Feed the World in 2050” made similar projections about population in that year, but specifically stated that production would need to amp up significantly (by 70 percent):
By 2050 the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion, 34 percent higher than today. Nearly all of this population increase will occur in developing countries. Urbanization will continue at an accelerated pace, and about 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban (compared to 49 percent today). Income levels will be many multiples of what they are now. In order to feed this larger, more urban and richer population, food production (net of food used for biofuels) must increase by 70 percent. Annual cereal production will need to rise to about 3 billion tonnes from 2.1 billion today and annual meat production will need to rise by over 200 million tonnes to reach 470 million tonnes.
Notably, the FAO holds that hunger and sufficient food supply can and do co-exist in regions where starvation is pervasive, because “of lacking income opportunities for the poor and the absence of effective social safety nets.” In other words, the problem is not necessarily profitable to solve.
The claim that current food production in any given year is one and a half times the amount needed to feed the world is typically attributed to the FAO, repeated in the widely-cited 2012 editorial and dated to 2009. In that year, the FAO issued a report estimating that global economic crises were to blame for an increase in starvation the world over:
“A dangerous mix of the global economic slowdown combined with stubbornly high food prices in many countries has pushed some 100 million more people than last year into chronic hunger and poverty,” said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf, with the lower incomes and rising unemployment reducing access to food for the poor.
In the wake of the food and fuel crises of 2006-2008, food prices still remain high in developing countries, hurting poor consumers who spend up to two-thirds of their incomes on staple foods.
In 2012, the Guardian reported that the figures widely cited after the FAO’s 2009 report might not have borne out when final data came in. Although that item focused on the estimates of a billion people going hungry globally (the same number cited in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture editorial), the estimates seemed in part to tie in to global production of food:
Though they flourished in headlines, the projections produced in 2009, and again in 2010, were never without their critics. Crucially, because the USDA model focused on low-income countries, any figures for countries like India and China – where most of the world’s poorest people live – were “guesstimates” at best.
A long list of issues with global hunger numbers, past and present, was on full display last week at an under-reported UN statistics symposium. Because of growing concerns about its estimates, the FAO did not release new figures in 2011. Instead, it quietly backed away from its 2009 and 2010 projections. Now, it’s undergoing a root-and-branch review of how it constructs estimates on global hunger, looking for ways to improve the underlying data and make the FAO hunger indicator more sensitive to crises, shocks, changes in income and food prices.
As the number popped up again and again through 2017 and 2018, it was always tied to the 2012 editorial and the 2009 FAO report:
Some believe the solution lies in simply producing more food. A study recently published in the journal Bioscience suggests that overall food production will need to increase by anywhere from 25-70% between now and 2050.
But, what if we told you that there’s already enough food grown on farms to feed 10 billion people? Yes, enough food for more than 2.5 billion humans than currently exist.
A 2002 FAO report contained the same claim (and made the same point) about food supplies worldwide being sufficient to feed everyone on the planet:
Although enough food is being produced to feed the world’s population, there are still some 840 million undernourished people in the world, 799 million of whom live in developing countries (FAO, 2002a). This situation led the World Food Summit in 1996 to set a goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 … To reach the goal by 2015, the annual decrease in the number of hungry people would have rise tenfold to 24 million. As Jacques Diouf, FAO Director General, says in the foreword to the 2002 State of Food Insecurity in the World Report, the cost of inaction is prohibitive; the cost of progress is both calculable and affordable.
As was often the case, a 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) item contained the claim in its headline (“The world produces enough food to feed everyone. So why do people go hungry?”), but then the text of its reporting described a far more complicated issue than simply the existence of food:
Last September , world leaders made a commitment to end hunger by 2030, as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It sounds like a massive undertaking. In fact, the world already produces enough food to feed everyone. So why does the problem persist?
Poverty and hunger are intimately connected, which is why the SDGs target elimination of both. For someone living at the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.90 per day, food would account for some 50-70% of income. The Bank estimates that almost four-fifths of the world’s poor live in rural areas, though those areas account for less than half of the world’s population. The obvious conclusion is that raising rural incomes sustainably is required to eradicate hunger … That will not be easy. Most developing countries nowadays are burdened by high rates of unemployment and underemployment. And with current economic prospects bleak, especially given low commodity prices, and insistence on fiscal austerity continuing in most places, downward pressure on rural incomes is likely to worsen.
In addition to economic fluctuations and myriad factors in the distribution of global food supplies, the matter of food waste was also a concern. A 2010 review published in Science cited estimates between 30 and 40 percent of all food supplies globally are “lost to waste” rather than eaten by the hungry — itself again a multi-layered issue:
Roughly 30 to 40% of food in both the developed and developing worlds is lost to waste, though the causes behind this are very different). In the developing world, losses are mainly attributable to the absence of food-chain infrastructure and the lack of knowledge or investment in storage technologies on the farm, although data are scarce. For example, in India, it is estimated that 35 to 40% of fresh produce is lost because neither wholesale nor retail outlets have cold storage. Even with rice grain, which can be stored more readily, as much as one-third of the harvest in Southeast Asia can be lost after harvest to pests and spoilage. But the picture is more complex than a simple lack of storage facilities: Although storage after harvest when there is a glut of food would seem to make economic sense, the farmer often has to sell immediately to raise cash.
Back to the question of whether we currently produce (or have recently produced) not only enough food to feed not just the current 7.5 billion population in 2018-2019, but also the projected 9.8 billion population in 2050, research published in 2018 in Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene maintained that could be true — but with major caveats:
The current production of crops is sufficient to provide enough food for the projected global population of 9.7 billion in 2050, although very significant changes to the socio-economic conditions of many (ensuring access to the global food supply) and radical changes to the dietary choices of most (replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and greater acceptance of human-edible crops currently fed to animals, especially maize, as directly-consumed human food) would be required.
A 2018 exchange between Massie and a Twitter user about “food stamps for all” being a logical progression from healthcare as a right includes a widely-repeated claim that the world currently produces one-and-a-half times the food needed to feed everyone living on it, but that hunger was not a profitable problem to solve. A cursory examination of the data around the amount of food produced by the world showed that, at a base level, global agriculture is indeed sufficiently productive to feed significantly more people.
However, detailed research noted that a factor in dropping hunger levels would involve major changes to distribution practices and inequality worldwide, and also that some of the crops being counted in as potential foodstuffs were being used to feed livestock and for fuel. Although an exceedingly broad interpretation of the claim is true and commodification of necessities like food is clearly a huge factor in it, we rate the claim decontextualized due to the enormous amount of context behind it.