Will We Have Enough Food?

Speaking of the Population Reference Bureau, the February 1997 Population Bulletin, “Population, Food, and Nutrition” addressed the central question of whether or not there will be enough food to feed the world’s population as it climbs to 10 billion people by the middle of the next century.

It is difficult to summarize a 47-page article, but by and large the authors, William Bender and Margaret Smith, provide evidence which backs up the claims the Overpopulation FAQ makes. First, Smith and Bender agree that today the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone — that people go malnourished is largely a political problem and not an agricultural one.

Second, although it is by no means assured, given the right incentives agriculture should be able to expand to feed the projected increase in population. As Bender and Smith note, “How much can yields increase? It seems logical that there is an upper limit to the amount of food crops that can be grown on a hectare of land. However, the experience of the past 30 years suggests that most countries are still far below that limit. In fact, countries with the highest starting yields have generally shown the fastest absolute increase in ultimate yields” (19). How far below their possible production are some areas? According to Bender and Smith, Africa and South America currently produce less than 1 percent of their potential agricultural harvest (25).

Furthermore Smith and Bender argue that claims by groups such as The Worldwatch Institute that crop yields are declining ignores what is really happening. Smith and Bender write, “This trend [a decrease in per capita grain production since 1984] at first appears an alarming sign that we will lack enough grain to feed our growing population, but it most likely reflects the growing statistical weight of the developing countries. Faster population growth in developing countries increased their share of world population from about 77 percent to 80 percent between 1984 and 1996. This shift pushed worldwide per capita grain production averages down toward the developing-country levels” (24).

Finally, Smith and Bender note the effect that perverse economic incentives set by governments in the Third World have on food production there. “In much of Africa, in contrast, urban populations command the attention of the government and benefit from food sold below its true value in urban markets. When food is sold below fair market value, the rural smallholders who produce the food are denied a fair return on their investments and are subsequently unwilling to invest in inputs that would increase their yields” (42).

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