2 – Can we feed the world?

05 July, 2017

At various stages in human history concern has been raised about our ability to feed ourselves. Questions or bleak forecasts suggest impending starvation or malnourishment ahead.  Our economic and social development is impugned and our futures are seen to be blighted by food scarcity.

But at least in our current and recent history is such pessimism warranted?  In spite of the growth in the world’s population and in spite of our increased wealth that leads us to consume more meat and dairy products that in turn often rely on even more grain production; we remain able to feed ourselves.  Even when governments mandate new uses for grain for biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) that divert large volumes of grain from traditional food and feed markets, we are still able to feed ourselves. More accurately, although a portion of the world’s population is over-fed with obesity being an issue and another portion remains mal-nourished; most of the world’s population receives just enough.

We’ve been able to feed the global population mostly via increased grain production. We’ve achieved this firstly by converting more land into crop production (see Figure 1) and secondly by raising crop yields. Most strikingly, as revealed in the circled area of Figure 1, in spite of all the sources of additional demand for grain there has been little need in recent years to bring additional land into crop production.

Figure 1. Changes in crop area by crop type since 2002 Source: Jackson (2017)

In fact, as shown in a recent analysis by Jackson (2017), towards 2035 there will only be a slight increase in the likely global area of crop; with the area of wheat and rice projected to decline whilst the areas of soybean and corn (maize) will continue to increase (see Figure 2). The dietary shift toward greater consumption of meat and dairy products will underpin the increased demand for these feed grains.

Figure 2: Projected changes in crop areas by crop type from 2015 to 2035 Source: Jackson (2017)

What is allowing these relatively small changes in crop areas is the steady improvement in crop yields. Yield improvement is allowing the required volumes of grain to be grown and sold, without any additional incentives being required that would bring new land into production. Hence one of the undersold great stories of scientific endeavour is that the global population’s food requirements can be satisfied via scientific innovation and progress without resorting to bringing new land into production. Hence, natural habitats can be protected rather than be converted into farm production.

The other factor that is allowing global grain demand to be met principally via yield improvement is the slowing in the rate of increase of the world’s population. In the 1970s, for example, the world’s annual rate of population increase was 2 per cent. Now it’s under 1.2 per cent, mostly due to the decline in family sizes as living standards improve. In the 1970s the fertility rate was almost 5 children per woman whereas now it’s trending towards two.

In Australia’s key Asian markets, population changes are increasingly evident. China’s population is projected to peak in around 20 years to be just under 1½ billion, before slowly lessening. Korea’s population is expected to peak earlier (around 2020) and thereafter to fall more noticeably. Japan’s population is already in decline and is poised to contract by 20 per cent over the next four decades. In contrast, population continues to rise rapidly in Indonesia and India, with the latter expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation in around 2030.

So, in summary, if the question is “Can we feed the world?”, the short answer seems to be “Yes”. Even though people, on average, are becoming richer and are consuming more grain, the combination of the slowing of the rate of increase in the world’s population and the on-going improvement in grain yields is likely to deliver enough grain for the world’s future needs.

References

Jackson, D. (2017) Where are agricultural prices heading? Address to the GRDC Research Updates, Perth, Western Australia, Feb 27&28, Crown Plaza.

Hall, J. and Stone, A. (2010) Demography and Growth. Reserve Bank Bulletin, June 2010: 15-23.

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