The global food problem isn’t what you think
While a large part of the agricultural research establishment is focused on one aspect of the challenge - calories - another part of the scientific community is focused on a related but different one: adequate nutrient consumption.
To this point, the first group has driven the world’s agricultural research agenda. But a new study I co-authored with a group of international scientists and recently published in Nature Sustainability suggests that calorie fundamentalism is leading us down a dangerous path.
Our group looked at both the question of how much food would be available during the next three decades and the question of whether the food would meet our nutritional needs.
With a depth and breadth that goes far beyond previous studies, we made assessments for 158 countries of the supply of macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein and fat, and micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, needed for good health, cognition and productivity.
We then forecast the country- by-country needs in 2050, when the global population would have increased by about 2.1billion and when the economies of the countries would probably have expanded.
Finally, to provide both best- and worst-case scenarios, we projected a future without climate change and one with extreme climate change. Here’s what we found:
Under even the worst conditions, there will be enough food, if we define “enough” as meaning sufficient calories, on average, for everyone - with 2000 calories a day as the standard requirement.
Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone will get enough to eat; it doesn’t mean that today either. Civil wars, poor roads and income disparities will probably produce hunger in 2050, as they do today. Helping these people is a question of access, not availability.
In fact, our research shows there will be more calories available per capita in 2050 than now. This is true in all five of the income quintiles into which we categorised the world’s people and even in the face of our extreme climate-change scenario. Here’s why:
First, we found that the positive impact of income growth between now and 2050 overwhelms the negative impact of climate change. On average, people who need more food will be better able to afford it.
Second, the post-World War II Green Revolution efforts to boost the productivity of staples such as wheat and rice have been so successful that we are awash in carbohydrates. And because so much has been invested in improving the productivity of these crops, solid yield gains will probably continue for the next few decades. The productivity enhancements have also made them more affordable relative to other foods that provide more of the other needed nutrients.
Our success with carbohydrates, however, has had a serious downside: a worldwide plague of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases.
The World Health Organisation reports that in 2014 there were 462million underweight adults worldwide but more than 600million who were obese - nearly two-thirds of them in developing countries. And childhood obesity is rising much faster in poorer countries than in richer ones.
Meanwhile, micronutrient shortages such as vitamin A deficiency are causing blindness in somewhere between 250000 and 500000 children a year and killing half of them within 12 months of them losing their sight. Dietary shortages of iron, zinc, iodine and folate all have devastating health effects.
The statistics point to the need for more emphasis on nutrients other than carbohydrates in our diets. In this area, our findings are not reassuring.
Micronutrient deficiencies are a problem today even in the world’s richest countries and are wide- spread elsewhere.
Our forecasts show these deficiencies are likely to continue under all scenarios and that climate change could make them worse in some regions.
Our findings thus point to the need for a course correction. While we prepare to adapt to climate change, which will probably produce major and somewhat unpredictable effects on future food supply, we must also prepare for the decades ahead. We must shift our emphasis from food security to nutrition security.
A major effort must be made to increase the productivity - the yield per hectare - of nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans. By enhancing their productivity, we’ll make them more available and affordable. And we’ll see the benefits in a diminished obesity crisis and fewer victims of micronutrient deficiencies.
Agricultural research, however, generally takes years to pay off. It’s magic, but it’s slow magic. We need to start now. Washington Post
Nelson is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.