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No Loaves and Fishes: Feeding Nine Billion in 2050?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

dreamstime_xs_16480088 We have recently been told that a billion people go to bed hungry every night, something that is only intellectually conceivable to most Americans. It is also an incomprehensible number. It is astonishingly three times as many people as there are in the entire United States.

As things stand now, it appears that the situation will only get worse – but oddly enough, not because there is not enough food, but because the food that is grown is badly allocated. One big area of misallocation is the food we feed to animals – 35 per cent of the food grown. It takes 30 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef; it takes half of that to grow a pound of turkey – but that still means that the food value of the grain the turkey ate was diminished to one fifteenth of what it might have been worth to a hungry person. If the world stopped eating meat – or at least eating farmed animals – our food supply would be potentially increased by a third.

Of course, making more food available will not, by itself, solve the problem. An enormous amount of food is simply not available where it is needed, mostly for reasons that food follows the money, and almost all of the people who go hungry are poor. The world has never been kind to the poor, and despite all the charitable associations and NGO’s dedicated to help them, the poor are not where sufficient food goes. They have the poorest land and the poorest harvests.

Yet in richer countries, vast amounts of food are thrown away. In the U.S., the worst offender, 30 percent of the food we produce for consumption within the country is discarded as garbage. A significant portion of produce is even discarded because it is not pretty enough to sell, like a lumpy apple or a misshaped potato.

Much food is lost before it is harvested. This is particularly true in poorer countries where farmers simply don’t have the seeds, the fertilizer, the irrigation to bring their crops to complete fruition. Crops are more likely to be lost to pests or drought.

In richer countries, highly mechanized farming leaves much behind.  Some of the fruits and vegetables aren’t picked simply because the machines miss them. Some, like melons, are left on the vine to rot if they are not ripe enough when the harvester passes over them. Some produce is left because the crop is larger than the farmer has a market for. This is not a negligible amount.

Last year, the Society of St Andrew, a non-profit organization that collects produce left in fields in the south, collected over 14 million pounds of vegetables for distribution to food centers and other charitable organizations that feed the hungry. But the society estimates that some 96 million pounds are left to rot in American fields every year, never to reach the people who might be able to use it.

All of this still comes down to the basic fact: the food is there, but lots of it is not where the hungry are located. Before another two billion of us crowd the poorest parts of the planet, we need to work out a better food allocation system.

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