Enough food for everyone?

When it comes to discussing global food security the first argument that is put forward is that we need to increase production (by 70%? doubling yields?) in order to meet the demands of a growing and wealthier world population towards 2050. There is a number of weak assumptions around these estimates that I’m not going to address in this post but perhaps in a following one. Here, I would like to place emphasis not on quantity but on quality. While on a global scale we are producing enough calories to feed everyone (2720 Kcal per person per year produced, against 1800 to 2100 needed, according to the World Health Organisation of the UN), we know that we humans need more than just calories to stay alive and live a functional life.

At the same time we learn from medical doctors and nutritionists that diet is becoming the number one cause of death among humans – diets kill more people than wars or road accidents! This is why specialists at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation of Washington University came up with a proposal for a balanced global diet – accounting for physiological and cultural diversity in food habits – designed not just to lose weight but to reduce the risk of diet related death. The major items in such a diet are indicated in the figure below, depicting in relative terms their current availability (yellow bars) and the level necessary to meet current human needs on a global scale (blue vertical line).


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While the current production of vegetables, nuts, fruits, milk and edible seeds are insufficient to meet world demands, the production of whole grains and fish are about 50% higher than human requirements, while the production of red meat is 568% higher than required for a healthy diet. This suggests that the generalised assumption that food production must increase is only true for certain food items (e.g., vegetables by 11%, seeds and nuts by 58%, fruits by 34%, etc.). Nuts, seeds and fruits, in particular, are for the most part tree crops. Does this mean that to meet future global food demands we will have to plant more trees or practice agroforestry?


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