The Dwindling World Food Supply


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The Prediction

Population grows exponentially. That is, each generation is a little bigger than the generation before, and so more people have more children, and the next generation is bigger yet. Population grows faster and faster.

On the other hand, food production is limited by available farmland, water for irrigation, and so on, and so cannot grow without limit. Food production grows more and more slowly.

Therefore, it inevitably follows that as population continues to grow faster while food production grows more slowly, sooner or later population will outstrip food supply, and it just will not be possible to feed all the people. The logic is simple and irrefutable. Right?

Let's look at the facts.

The Reality

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization keeps statistics on world population and food production. Their broadest measure is an aggregate total of all food produced in the world. As this combines many different kinds of food, they express this total simply as a percentage of an arbitrarily-chosen baseline.1

Here are the FAO's figures2,3 for world population and food production. They have statistics available starting from 1961.

Year Population
(Millions)
Food Production
(Index)
1961 3,086 49.5
1962 3,147 50.8
1963 3,210 52.1
1964 3,276 53.8
1965 3,343 54.5
1966 3,412 56.8
1967 3,482 59.0
1968 3,554 60.7
1969 3,628 60.8
1970 3,702 62.7
1971 3,777 64.6
1972 3,854 64.0
1973 3,930 67.7
1974 4,006 68.7
1975 4,081 70.5
1976 4,155 72.6
1977 4,227 73.8
1978 4,299 77.4
1979 4,373 78.3
1980 4,447 78.8
1981 4,524 81.4
1982 4,602 84.2
1983 4,682 84.4
1984 4,764 88.8
1985 4,847 90.7
1986 4,933 92.9
1987 5,021 93.3
1988 5,109 94.8
1989 5,197 98.4
1990 5,282 100.8
1991 5,366 100.8
1992 5,447 103.6
1993 5,527 104.5
1994 5,607 108.1
1995 5,687 110.6
1996 5,768 115.1
1997 n/a 116.2

It can be hard to see the trend in a maze of numbers like this, so let's try representing it as a graph.4

(Sorry, you need HTML5 and Javascript to see the graph.)

Population and Food Production

This graph shows that the first part of the argument is essentially correct: Population does grow exponentially.

But it is absolutely dead wrong about food production. Consistently for the past 35 years, world food production has grown, not more and more slowly, but faster and faster. Indeed, food production is increasing faster than population.

Let's look at the data another way. The FAO also publishes their calculation of world food production per person.1 Here's their data:

Year Food per Person
(index)
1961 84.7
1962 85.2
1963 85.7
1964 86.7
1965 86.1
1966 87.9
1967 89.5
1968 90.2
1969 88.5
1970 89.4
1971 90.3
1972 87.8
1973 90.9
1974 90.5
1975 91.3
1976 92.2
1977 92.2
1978 95.1
1979 94.6
1980 93.6
1981 95.0
1982 96.6
1983 95.3
1984 98.4
1985 98.9
1986 99.4
1987 98.2
1988 98.0
1989 100.0
1990 100.7
1991 99.2
1992 100.4
1993 99.9
1994 101.8
1995 102.7
1996 105.4
1997 104.9

While these numbers have their ups and downs, the general trend is clearly upward.

Note that in 1996 world food production per person was 24% more than it was in 1961 (105.4 divided by 84.7.) Understand, these figures do not say that the world produced 24% more food, but that the world produced 24% more food per person.

The Explanation

How is this possible?

Simple. Technology. Especially since World War II, agricultural technology has been racing ahead. When we think of technology we usually think of machines, and in Western countries this has certainly been a part of it: the tractor, the combine, and so forth have greatly contributed to increasing food production. In the developing countries mechanization is still far behind the West, but other types of technology have proven even more important: fertilizers, irrigation, better weather prediction, and perhaps most important, new strains of crops that grow faster, can thrive in difficult conditions, and are more resistant to disease. Agronomists refer to the introduction of these new crops to the Third World as the "Green Revolution", and it dramatically improved the state of the world's food supply.

Whenever I point out these facts in writing or lectures, somebody invariably objects that these technologies have now "peaked", that all they accomplished was to hold off the inevitable.

This is incredibly pessimistic. Technology has been steadily advancing for thousands of years. In the last two hundred years it has been increasing at a faster and faster pace. But now, they say, it's about to stop. After thousands of years of progress, and despite the fact that the last few years have seen greater progress than at any time before in history, they are absolutely convinced that tomorrow will be the last day and there will never be another new invention, there will never be another scientific discovery, ever again. I find this very hard to believe. There is every reason to presume that technology will continue to advance in the future as it has in the past. I make no claim to know what agricultural technology will look like a hundred years from now, except to say that it will almost certainly be more advanced than it is today.

But let's suppose this pessimistic belief is true. Technology is about to stop dead. If technology will no longer allow us to increase the yield of each crop, is there any other way to increase food production?

Sure. Plant more crops.

According to the FAO5, the world has a total of 13.048 billion hectares of land. (A hectare is about two and a half acres.) Of this, 1.467 billion hectares are being used to grow crops, or 11%. Okay, let's concede that some of this land is unsuitable for farming. The FAO says that 4.003 billion hectares contain buildings or roads, are too barren to be used as farmland, or are of unknown usefullness (due to limitations in trying to collect data from all over the world). This leaves 9.045 billion hectares of reasonably fertile, undeveloped land. Even at that we are only using 16% of the available land.

Granted, there would be adverse consequences to using 100% of this land to grow crops. Land is needed for animals to graze, to provide habitats for wild animals, etc. But if we are presently using only 16% of the world's potential farmland, we surely have a lot of room to maneuver.

Starvation is not imminent. The average citizen of the world today is better fed that at any time in recorded history. And the situation is getting better and better every year. Chicken Little and Al Gore are wrong.


Footnotes

1. Trying to combine numbers for different types of food presents a problem: What unit of measure do you use? The FAO decided on using the monetary value of the food produced, choosing the average price for each commodity for a baseline period (1989-1991), and then calculating production from all over the world based on a single price. This eliminates errors from regional price variations, and price changes over time, including inflation. It does mean that different types of food are evaluated based on their price rather than, say, their nutritional value. But if one counted by calories, you could reply that this ignored vitamins; if one counted vitamins, you could reply that this ignored carbohydrates; etc. For more information, see the FAO's explanation of their index, at "http://www.fao.org/waicent/faostat/agricult/indices-e.htm".

2. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. "Agricultural Production Indices." Statistical Database. Rev 1997. http://apps.fao.org/lim500/nph-wrap.pl?CropsPrimary&Domain=PIN (8 Nov 1997)

3. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. "Population." Statistical Database Rev 1997. http://apps.fao.org/lim500/nph-wrap.pl?Population (8 Nov 1997)

4. To put food production and population on the same graph, I have expressed population as an index also, with 1961=50 so it starts at about the same place as food production.

5. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. "Land Use." Statistical Database. Rev 1997. http://apps.fao.org/lim500/nph-wrap.pl?LandUse (8 Nov 1997) Used 1994 data, the most recent year for which they provided complete statistics.


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Posted 10 Sep 2000.

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