This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail, August 4, 2015
Thomas Malthus was wrong. Food production is meeting global demand. The problem is getting it there. Hunger still threatens lives, especially in conflict zones. What we eat and how much we eat is another challenge.
Malthus, the 18th century scholar-cleric, warned that population growth would outpace food production resulting in mass starvation. But Malthus and his apocalyptic apostles failed to account for human ingenuity, the market economy’s incentives, and government safety nets.
As a result, the UN Millennium Summit goal of halving those who suffer from hunger has been achieved. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), global malnourishment has dropped from 23.3 per cent (1990) to 12.9 per cent (2014).
In its recent The State of Food Insecurity the FAO reports that while 796 million people remain undernourished, it is 216 million less than in 1990. During that same period the global population grew from 5.2 to 7 billion. Out of 129 developing countries 72 have reached their Millennium Development hunger target.
This remarkable progress is a result of scientific ingenuity. The postwar Green Revolution significantly increased the production of grains: rice, wheat, pulse, lentils and, most of all, corn. Calories became much more available and at cheaper cost, making an appreciable reduction in hunger.
Innovation has not stopped. We now have meta-yielding, disease-resistant seeds. The application of technologies, like GPS in planting and harvesting, makes a difference. We make better use of water and fertilizers. Food processing and distribution are more efficient, allowing longer storage of fruits and vegetables without spoilage.
The global trading system helps. Getting goods quickly to destinations acts as a shock absorber in time of crisis. Innovation in refrigeration and containerization creates more choice at lower cost.
Still, one in eight goes to bed hungry each night. Hunger thrives in instability and current conflicts have created over 50 million displaced persons – the most since the Second World War.
For nations, especially in the Middle East and Africa, better domestic food production is also handicapped by low productivity and lack of access to markets and food processing. Technological improvements are less accessible because of proprietary restrictions, expense or because they don’t know how to use them.
Climate change is exacerbating the age-old complaints of pests and disease, flood and drought.
Farmers need help in learning the basics of soil rehabilitation through better irrigation and crop rotation. Of the 570 million worldwide farms, the FAO report says more than 90 per cent are managed and worked by an individual or a family. Most of these farms are less than 2 hectares yet they produce more than 80 per cent of the world’s food.
Then there is the problem of what we eat.
Fast food, rich in carbohydrates and sugars, is quick and cheap. Meals with vitamins and minerals take longer and cost more. Poor nutrition – causing obesity and hypertension leading to diabetes – especially afflicts minorities and First Nations. Canadians need to cut down on salt and sugar.
But there’s encouraging news: Canadians, where one in four is considered obese, and Americans, where one in three is considered obese, are starting to eat less and eat better. In 1998 Americans drank 40 gallons of full-calorie soda but in 2014 the figure had dropped to 30 gallons.
Education is key. We need to devote more attention to food literacy: food preparation and the nutritional value of what we are eat. What used to be called “home economics” in school has as much application for men as women and should be made mandatory. Programs like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move and a focus on school lunches are steps in the right direction. Canada’s Food Guide is still useful but it needs smarter distribution.
Canada was once the “breadbasket” to the world. With our growing production in pulse, pork and beef, we are poised, after we reform supply management in poultry and dairy production, to help feed the world.
Canada’s Lester B. Pearson was one of the architects of the FAO, the first permanent UN-specialized, functional organization. As he told its inaugural conference (1945) in Quebec City, the FAO is “helping nations to achieve freedom from want.”
Hunger is still a challenge requiring continuing multilateral efforts. National governments need to emphasize diet literacy and the value of exercise in schools to meet the challenges of malnourishment and obesity. Eating habits need to change: less carbs, more greens.
So far we’ve proved Malthusian prognostications wrong. With education, ingenuity and multilateral collaboration, there is reason for optimism.