Should We Be Worried About A World Food Shortage?


The world’s population grows by 80 million people a year, having increased fourfold in the space of a century, and by 2050, demand for food will have risen by 70 percent. Throughout history, many civilisations were brought down by a world food shortage, with the Sumerians and Mayans being early examples.

The research body, the International Food Policy Research Institute, now tells us that there are “alarming” or “extremely alarming” levels of hunger in 33 countries, with hunger killing more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis put together. Eventually, every other country will follow.

Developed countries are already showing signs of strain. In Calton in Glasgow, Scotland, the average life expectancy of a male is 54 years, more than 20 years lower than that of the United Kingdom as a whole, with diet-related disease playing a key role. The US Department of Agriculture found that the number of US homes “lacking food security” grew from 4.7 million to 6.7 million in only five years. In these times of austerity, people eat less because the cost of rent is incompressible.

Lester Brown, an environmental analyst, president of Washington’s Earth Policy Institute and author of the book, Full Planet: Empty Plates, said, “This situation is not going to go away.” Drought and heat reduce harvests, as occurred in Russia in 2010 and both Russia and the United States in 2012. Brown predicts that food prices will increase, leading to political instability. High food prices were one factor that fuelled the Arab Spring in 2011. They also caused days of rioting in Haiti in 2008, leading to the deaths of five people and the ejection from office of the Prime Minister. They have been behind disturbances in Egypt of late.

Brown intoned, “Food is the new oil and land is the new gold.” He claims that the food system began “unravelling” in 2008 after grain prices doubled in a short space of time, while Oxfam has reported that key food staples could double in price again over the next 20 years. In 2008, grain exporters such as Russia and Argentina restricted exports to lower domestic prices. The problem was not confined to grain: Thailand banned rice exports for months for the same reason. More affluent importers including China, India, Saudi Arabia and South Korea panicked and began purchasing or leasing land in other countries so they could produce food themselves.

Brown said there’s no guarantee that the world can continue to increase production as it has in the past, giving the example that genetically modified seeds had not increased yields by a great deal. In addition, water tables are falling and temperatures rising, with the US National Academy of Sciences finding that every degree above the optimal temperature reduced corn, rice and wheat yields by approximately 10 percent. If climate change remains unaddressed, the Earth’s temperature could rise by six percent.

A report by Oxfam that was released in 2012 stated that almost 60 percent of land deals worldwide from 2000 to 2010 – an area eight times as large as the United Kingdom – had been left unfallowed by speculators, contrary to the aims of the World Bank, or used for the purpose of growing crops for use as biofuels, which was identified as the cause of between 20 and 30 percent of the global food price spike of 2008. This land could have been used to feed nearly a billion people, which is approximately the number who are malnourished, per the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Over 60 percent of investment in agricultural land by foreign investors was in developing countries featuring serious hunger problems. Oxfam urged the World Bank to stop these “land grabs” by freezing investments in large-scale land acquisitions, which the UK government could assist as it’s one of the Bank’s largest shareholders. EU biofuels targets were another problem.

Almost 30 percent of Liberia was distributed through large-scale concessions in five years. A study by the World Bank’s monitoring and evaluation body, the Independent Evaluation Group, reported that around 30 percent of the Bank’s projects involved involuntary resettlement. The chief executive of Oxfam, Barbara Stocking, declared, “The rush for land is out of control and some of the world’s poorest people are suffering hunger, violence and greater poverty as a result.” She described the situation as one of the largest scandals of the century.

In the United States, only nine percent of income is spent on food, but in developing countries, households spend from 50 to 70 percent of their income in this manner. Many people eat only one meal a day, and a survey by Save the Children showed that in India and Nigeria, around a quarter of households do not eat at all on one or more days a week.

75.5 percent of land is used for agriculture. Agricultural land is being lost to housing development and factories. An extra 23 million cars appear every year, for which roads and parking lots are necessary. Pollution degrades agricultural land. As countries grow wealthier, consumption increases.

The way in which the World Bank and other lenders could help assuage the problem has been detailed. Other solutions are to save water, stabilise the world’s population, lessen meat consumption, halt soil erosion and reverse biofuels policies. The situation could further be improved by reducing waste: a study by the UN in 2011 discovered that 1.3bn tons of food – around a third of global production – is lost during production or wasted after being partly consumed.

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

Leave a Comment:

Rob Little says July 24, 2013

Unless we humans ignorantly believe that we are immune to biological population regulation mechanisims, the only real answer is to “stabilise, and reverse, the world’s population”.

    Mark Whitman says July 24, 2013

    Totally agree Rob. Nice to see that we are getting visitors from UCT! Mark

Barbara Kasl says July 25, 2013

Not to say that we won’t eventually run into food shortages should we carry on our current growth rate (which has slowed down in recent decades), but we will run into food distribution problems way before then. Most of the issues listed in the article can be linked to socio-economic and logistic issues, not strictly global food shortages. Thought-provoking article

    Mark Whitman says July 27, 2013

    Thanks Barbara, very valid point. Distribution and the associated carbon footprint is perhaps the bigger challenge. Stay in touch, Mark

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