Today’s Solutions: June 13, 2024

Failed crops due to extreme drought. High food prices. More hungry people in the world … Reason enough to ask ourselves if it will all work out.
We’ll start with the good news: so far food production has increased faster than the population. Agriculture per capita has increased by about thirty percent since 1980, when there were ‘only’ 4.5 billion people; now there are 7 billion.
Halfway through this century we’ll most likely reach a population peak of 9.6 billion. At that time the population of earth will be moderately better off than now, and, just as we do now, will want safe and healthy food, offered in diverse variety.
Here’s an interesting thing to consider: in many cases more food is produced in less space. Take corn in the United States: more corn is grown on an ever smaller square footage.
In the last sixty years the total harvest of the three highest calorie crops – corn, wheat and rice – has increased by a factor of three, while the land used has hardly changed.
According to some the land needed to feed the world population has already been set. More land can be returned to nature.
Recent increases in agricultural activity are in part due to large tracts of the Brazilian tropical savanna having been turned into arable land, and the greater efficiency in the use of agricultural land in the former East Block countries. The countries of the former Soviet Union were the largest importers of food in the 1980s, but now together they form the third largest exporter.
Big challenges remain, primarily because with increased wealth more people want to eat meat, which means more cattle feed is needed.
Challenges remain for Africa. But improvements are in sight, some even deceptively simple. People with a romantic notion of farm life might recoil, but tractors can increase productivity by 25 percent, mainly because no fertile land is ‘wasted’ for food for the horses and oxen that assist the farmer.
Good news comes from the Millennium Villages, the prestigious project of the popular economist Jeffrey Sachs. In these poor villages it has been shown that the yield per acre of corn, the most important crop in large areas of sub-Sarahan Africa, can be tripled through systematically fertilizing the soil.
The harvest remains marginal compared to the United States, but some farmers in the Millennium Villages have reached the American standard (ten times higher than the African average).
Climate change
Another challenge comes from climate change. Experts point to an increase in what they’re calling ‘extreme weather’, such as torrential rains or prolonged periods of drought.
However it’s not a hard fact that the warming of the planet is leading to damage to agriculture. More carbon monoxide means crops are growing faster: which is why growers often put extra CO2 in their greenhouses. More than six hundred experiments with rice, wheat and soybeans which were exposed to the levels of CO2 expected in 2050 (some 300 parts per million) show an increase of 30 percent in the harvest.
In addition: if a warmer planet does lead to a smaller agricultural yield then we should have been able to see that in the last thirty years of increasing temperatures. That trend isn’t seen. Quite the contrary.
Food prices
But isn’t food getting more expensive? Remember, food prices shot up in 2008, which led to news reports of demonstrations and riots. Alarming articles started appearing that if food prices were to come down it would have disastrous consequences for small farmers.
It’s true that the real value of food is at a record high, but that is misleading. When you take into consideration inflation, the prices have in fact gone down. Today the food prices are about 30 percent below the level of 1980, and compared to 1900 as low as 85 percent.
Moreover, the portion of our income that we spend on food and drink is at a historic low. Fifty years ago Americans spent 18 percent on food, now it’s around 6 percent.
According to some this trend comes at the expense of quality. That is a fair question – stricter rules and inspections have made our food safer – but it’s also a problem of luxury; people in poorer countries spend a lot more of their income on food.
In South Korea as much as one third of income was spent on food in 1975, now it’s only 12 percent. Most likely the South Koreans like it that way. They have more money left over for other things.
It’s good to note that the current high food prices have not been caused by despair, but by prosperity – and that makes a big difference. Now we have the newly rich countries of China, India and Brazil wanting to consume more meat (though less in India), which means the demand for grain to feed cattle has increased.
In addition, the environmental policies in Europe and the United States mean that arable land is being used to grow fuel crops, which causes prices to rise too.
We therefore conclude that there is work to be done to feed a growing, more prosperous world population, but there is no cause for panic.
Yes, bad weather and poor policies will continue to cause temporary scarcities and price increases, but with the right choices it is possible to feed 9 billion people with better, more diverse food, grown on less land.

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