(Johan Helland and Gunnar M. Sorbo) - Growth and demand: The 2007/08 crisis has been a wake-up call to policy makers and to the public in general
, that the food system of the world has been thrown out of balance by a diversity of factors that must be addressed if agricultural productivity and food security are to be restored. After a period of neglect, there are now a number of new initiatives in the international community to boost investments and give increased attention to food production. 19 These initiatives are based on the assumption that there are technological solutions available to increase food production. But there are also many who believe that the slowing down of growth of agricultural production over the past decade is an indication that we have consumed the finite resources of the world, that we have reached the bio-physical limits for food production and that we are approaching an ecological collapse.
The relationship between population growth and food production has been a major concern since the days of Thomas Malthus, whose famous Essay on the Principle of Population (published in 1798) argued that population and the demand for food, which grows exponentially, always will outrun growth in food production. The outcome of these two processes is an imbalance that eventually will be corrected by disease, famine or war. Although the logic of Malthus’ thinking is impeccable, a Malthusian collapse of this nature has not yet been documented. The world population is more than 7 times larger now than it was when Malthus lived, but this has not resulted in the massive disasters predicted. On the contrary, people in general live longer and are better fed than before. Unforeseen technological and organizational innovations have time and again intervened to prevent a Malthusian outcome. Food production has grown more rapidly than anybody could imagine and population growth is slowing down too. There is still positive growth, but the population growth rate has slowed down from the peak rate of 2.19% per annum in 1962 to 1.14% in 2013, and is expected to drop to below 1% p.a. by 2020 and down to 0.5% before 2050. It is expected, therefore, that the world population will stabilize at around 10 billion in approximately 2060.
The argument between the Malthusians/neo-Malthusians (who now tend to put main emphasis on the need for population control) and the so-called ‘Cornucopians’, who believe that technological advances will provide a way out of the food security quandary, is still on-going. Up to now and in the most general terms, the Cornucopians have been proved right - the technology of the ‘green revolution’ has provided enough food to meet the needs of the growing population. None the less, there are no doubt limits to growth, as was the title of the report prepared in 1972 to review the situation. The neoMalthusian outlook of this book has been criticized on the basis of the quality of the data used, for faults with the models employed and for the conclusions reached, in particular since they ran counter to the prevailing view at the time that economic growth is tied to population growth, and more importantly, that economic growth would be necessary to solve the problem of poverty. Mention should also be made of the work of Ester Boserup, who saw population growth as a precondition for and major driver of agricultural innovation, social re-organization and technological progress.
In retrospect, the optimistic Cornucopian view has prevailed, even if there are notable differences between the situation in East Asia and for instance sub-Saharan Africa with respect to the trajectories of population growth and the consequences it has produced. However, the current debate on how climate change is related to the aggregate effects of continued population growth, and continued consumption along the lines established, has given neo-Malthusian perspectives a new relevance. Still, the debate is largely over whether the glass is half full or half empty. There is no easy answer to that question, particularly not when there is no agreement on how large the glass actually is.
New challenges to achieving food security
The demand for food is driven by a number of factors. Population growth is obviously one important factor but as has been pointed out above, food security depends also on the many structures, mechanisms and choices that govern access to food. It is therefore necessary to examine how new developments relate to the demand for food. Three important features stand out, all of them related to alternative uses of food.
New consumption patterns
First, an increasing proportion of the food grain produced in the world is now being used for animal feed. Economic development and growth of an increasingly prosperous middle class in many countries drive the demand for a changed diet, particularly with a shift towards more meat, dairy and poultry products. It is estimated that about 3 billion people worldwide are moving up the food chain in these terms, although not all of them are moving as quickly as the Chinese middle class. In 1985 meat consumption in China was 20 kilos per person, while in 2007 this had grown to 53 kilos per person.
The demand for animal feed reflects these changing consumption patterns. It partly implies utilizing human food grains for animal feed, but also using parts of the agricultural production capacity to produce crops specifically intended as animal feed. In the western hemisphere, for instance there is now more land planted with soybean than with wheat, and less than 10% of this crop is used directly for human consumption. The rest is used as animal feed.
Consumption patterns are changing in accordance with what economists call Bennett’s Law: as people become wealthier, they switch from starchy plant-dominated diets to a more varied food input that includes a range of vegetables, fruit, dairy products, and especially meat. The food types consumed by well-off people tend to require more resources to produce. Thus it takes 3 kg of high quality grain to produce one kg of meat, and 4 kg of marine wild fish to produce one kg of salmon in an aquaculture plant. Meat consumption in China, for example, has increased dramatically over the past two decades. China has a history of being self-sufficient in food grain, but with the growing demand for animal feed China has had to start importing both feed grain and soybeans. India, with religious and cultural restrictions on meat consumption, did not follow the same pattern, but other populous South-East Asian countries, many of which attained food self-sufficiency because of the ‘green revolution’, are again becoming increasingly dependent on the world market for animal feed, in particular. Worldwide, approximately 35 - 40% of the 2.3 billion tons annual grain harvest is now used for non-food purposes such as animal feed or biofuel feedstock.
A second, frequently overlooked factor that drives up the demand for food is food waste. It is estimated that approximately ! of all food produced globally for human consumption is wasted at some point in the food chain. If this food had been properly utilized, it would to a large extent have solved the problem of food security for the 800-1000 million people suffering from hunger. But this aspect of the food system receives little attention because very often the cost of recovering and preserving waste exceeds its value on the food market. It is yet another indication of how the world has got used to cheap food. In Europe and the US, consumer food waste is estimated at between 95 and 115 kg per person per year. In the developing countries the consumer food waste is down to between 6 and 11 kg per person per year, but here, food waste is largely due to post-harvest losses, during storage, transport and processing. It is estimated that as much as 25% of the harvested food grain in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is lost due to various preventable causes. Investments in public research and development in the field of post-harvest losses have followed the general pattern for agricultural development: since the 2007 food crises there is a renewed interest in the field. As far as the question of consumer food waste is concerned, and where the largest gains can be made, the effort is to a large extent left to civil society and various interest groups who are working on changing public perceptions and attitudes. To date there has been limited support from public agencies and public policy to this effort