According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, approximately 805 million people in the world are chronically undernourished (more than 1 in 10). They do not have reliable access to adequate calories and nutrition for healthy development and functioning. The impacts of caloric and nutrient malnourishment include chronic health problems and increased susceptibility to diseases. Nearly 200 million children under the age of five are underweight, and over 2.5 million children die from malnutrition each year. Malnourishment can have developmental impacts with long-term effects on educational achievement and economic productivity. Thus, pervasive malnourishment has immediate impacts on people’s welfare and presents longitudinal societal challenges.
It is a common belief that malnourishment is the result of there simply not being enough calories to feed the world’s population- i.e. that the problem is essentially one of scarcity. After all, our planetary resources are finite, and 7.2 billion people is a lot of mouths to feed. However, there is more than enough food in the world for everyone to have a nutritionally adequate diet. In recent decades agricultural productivity has exceeded population growth. Globally, and in every major region, more calories, fat and protein are produced and available in the food supply per capita today than in 1960. In fact, every developing region – including Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia (though not every nation) – produces enough calories and nutrition for everyone living there. There is enough food. So why is there so much hunger? There are three primary reasons: inefficient utilization of crop calories; food loss through waste and spoilage; and lack of access primarily due to poverty.
In many places, particularly those with high levels of per capita beef production, such as the United States, the majority of calories produced are not delivered to the food system. Producing nutrition through animals is extremely inefficient, since the animals use feed and water for many metabolic purposes besides growing tissue – e.g. breathing, moving, and growing hair, teeth and feathers. Only roughly10-12% of calories fed to animals are ultimately consumed by people (this is in aggregate, the rate is higher for dairy and eggs than it is for meat consumption, and it is higher for poultry than for beef), and over a third of the calories and half the protein of food crops are fed to animals. Another way calories fail to reach the food system is that they are diverted for use in biofuel production. In the United States, over 300 million people could be fed with the calories used to produce biofuel. Thus, one way to dramatically increase food availability is to increase direct human consumption of calories and nutrition – to eat less grain fed meat and produce less grain based biofuel. A recent analysis found that the amount of calories available to the food system could be increased by up to 70%, enough to feed 4 billion people a diet of 2700 Kcal/day, just by shifting utilization in these ways. Even if only half of the crop calories fed to animals and used for fuel were to go to direct human consumption, 2 billion additional people could be fed at current levels of productivity. This would also leave pasture available for animal agriculture, which uses 26% of the Earth’s land.
Waste and Loss
It is estimated that in the United States as much as 40% of the food that enters the food system is lost to waste. In less developed countries, losses to waste and spoilage are estimated to be 30-40% of what is produced. The FAO estimates that globally a third of the food produced – 1.3 billion tons of food annually, with an economic cost of approximately $750 billion – goes unconsumed. The losses are differently distributed along the food supply chain in developed and developing nations. In less developed countries, the losses are predominantly at the production, transport and processing stages, and are the result of spoilage and pests. This is primarily due to lack of infrastructure, such as harvesting technologies, storage capacity, efficient transportation and refrigeration. There is very little wastage at the retail, preparation and consumption stages, since there is not food abundance and the percentage of income spent on food is high. For example, in Guatemala 37.9% of household income is spent on food consumed at home and in Kenya it is 44.8%. Households living in extreme poverty spend as much as 60-80% of their income on food. In affluent nations with food abundance, where food expenditure as a percentage of household income is much lower (in the United States it is only 10%), the majority of food wastage occurs at the consumption and retail stages. In the United States, roughly 25% of consumer’s food and beverage purchases are ultimately discarded, at a cost estimated to be $1,265-$2,275 annually for a family of four. Over the entire food supply-chain in the United States, 273 lbs. of food/person/year is lost. There is thus an enormous amount of food to be “gained” by the food system through the elimination of food wastage.
Lack of Access
Many malnourished people live in places where adequate food and nutrition are available, but they cannot afford it. Thus, one way to reduce food insecurity is to improve poor people’s economic condition or decrease the cost of food to them. This has been accomplished to a considerable extent in China, for example, where economic growth has accompanied dramatic declines in both poverty and child malnutrition rates since 1990. However, economic growth alone does not ensure that poverty rates decline. Growth needs to reach those at the lower end of the economic distribution. It is also possible to increase food access in the absence of economic growth by decreasing economic inequality. In 2007, the poorest 20% of the Earth’s population had only 1% of the world’s income, while the top 1% of earners (61 million people) had the same total income as the poorest 56% (3.6 billion people). A more recent study found that the world’s wealthiest 1% now control over half of the world’s wealth. A World Bank analysis estimated the global aggregate poverty gap – i.e. the amount of money that would be required to bring everyone up to the (still very low) global poverty line of $1.25ppp/day- to be $169 billion, while one by the Brookings Institution put it at only $66 billion. Closing the gap would cost more than this, since it is not possible to perfectly target the resources at zero cost and accomplishing food security will often require that people have more than $1.25ppp/day on which to live. But it does give a sense of the relatively modest amount required. In 2013, global military spending was over $1.5 trillion, more than $600 billion of which was by the United States. That same year the United States government spent $1.7 billion on international food assistance.
Taken together, thoughtful policies and social programs that improve utilization, reduce waste and loss, and promote greater access to food among the poor offer tremendous potential for achieving food security with current agricultural production. It is also possible to significantly increase production on existing cultivated lands by adopting best farming practices and improving technology access, for both organic and conventional agriculture.
It is clear that malnutrition is as much a social and political problem as it is a resource and scarcity problem. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States where, despite an enormous abundance of food, 17.6 million households (14.5%) and 49 million citizens (including 8.3 million children) were food insecure in 2012, with 7 million households reporting that they ate less food than they would have liked because they lacked the economic or social resources to secure it. That so many people are food insecure in a country with so much food and wealth is the result of economic inequality and the absence of robust social support systems, which are in turn the product of public policies regarding education, labor, healthcare, taxes, and welfare. In most other affluent nations, there is very little food insecurity, due to such things as robust public assistance programs, living wage laws, and affordable universal healthcare.
In the long run, food security and ecological sustainability require reducing global fertility rates. There is a strong record of dramatic reductions in fertility rates, across cultural and socio-political contexts, when women have improved access to health care, family planning, education, employment outside the home, and economic opportunity. Pursuing these goals (which needs to be done in context-specific and culturally-sensitive ways) is ethically good in its own right, since they increase women’s autonomy, promote equality and improve human welfare and life outcomes. They also reduce population growth, thereby helping to meet the challenge of realizing global food security.
Thus, despite the scale of the problem, ending food insecurity and malnutrition is achievable now and into the future. It can be accomplished without significant sacrifice by those with food and wealth abundance. Mot of all, it is the compassionate and just thing to do.
Ronald Sandler is a Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Ethics Institute at Northeastern University. He is the author of Food Ethics: The Basics (Routledge, 2015), from which this post is derived.
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