By Maria F. Balcazar Tellez
Scientists, engineers, and governments today are striving to meet the food demands of the 9.1 billion people expected to live on the planet in 2050. Increased food production continues to be one of the leading strategies. In 2017, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) chapter reiterated the importance of continuing our efforts to intensify and increase cereal and meat production. To feed the projected 2050 population, the FAO has estimated that we need to raise production by at least 70%.
This standard discourse on food security assumes that hunger, starvation, and malnutrition are global in nature. Commonly-discussed strategies to enhance the global food system include technological innovation and implementation, focusing production on a limited and preferred number of food commodities, and an overall increase of total food production and international trade. However, framing food security solely as a production problem encourages the dismissal of other foundational components of food security, such as food and health access, consumption of native foods, alternative food production methods, and food utilization. It is also ethnocentric in nature, leading to problematic public health and environmental consequences across developing and developed nations alike. Additionally, focusing only on production has proven to be an ineffective policy as it fails to seriously consider alternative adaptive strategies in response to the challenges posed by climate change. This production-focused approach has resulted in an ineffective and unsustainable system that is failing from a human health, environmental, and climate perspective.
Limitations of Existing Production Metrics
Do we actually need to raise food production by at least 70% by 2050? I would argue that while production is important we must consider a more holistic approach, where diet and food security are part of a larger dynamic system that encompasses social, environmental, cultural, and economic factors.
One historically advocated-for solution to the food security challenge among policymakers, intergovernmental institutions, industry, and many scientists and engineers is to develop and apply newer and better agricultural technologies, particularly in developing nations, to increase overall food production. This popular approach stems from dominant policy attitudes and reflects a doctrine dating back to the 1930s and 1940s that prioritizes solving hunger first. However, food insecurity and hunger stubbornly persist in less developed countries despite a global food surplus and increased international trade. Meanwhile, developed nations are experiencing a significant number of diet-related health issues. In 2017, an estimated 821 million individuals experienced hunger; a trend that has continued to worsen over the last three years and is now similar to levels observed a decade ago. At the same time, more than 1.9 billion adults suffered from diseases related to overconsumption, and approximately two billion more suffered from what is now recognized as the “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiencies.
While many researchers and decision-makers continue to reference this 70% increase in food production, some of the assumptions behind that number must be critically examined. First, this 70% statistic does not correspond to an increase in annual tons of total food production but rather corresponds to the average volume demanded and produced in the crop and livestock sector. As a result, fruits, vegetables, and any non-animal sources of protein (legumes and pulses) are entirely excluded from the calculation.
This is a significant missing component when discussing food security in terms of diverse and nutritious diets, and it is particularly relevant in light of a recent report published by the EAT-Lancet Commission. The EAT-Lancet Commission, which brings together 30 world-leading scientists from across the globe and diverse scientific disciplines, concluded that a “planetary diet” composed of mainly fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes is critical to improve health outcomes and reduce the risk of irreversible and potentially catastrophic shifts in the Earth system. Additionally, the famous 70% statistic does not consider many culturally-local staples—unless they are part of the cereals accounted for. The calculations often substitute these local cultural foods, which may be cheaper and easier to produce, with higher-priced goods (meats and dairy).
Second, the 70% statistic in the FAO report uses the per capita consumption of calories— based on the availability or supply of calories—to then calculate undernourishment. However, these estimates neglect any consideration of food access, which is critically different from food supply. Food access refers to three main characteristics: food price, consumers’ accessibility to a food retailer, and consumers’ availability of preferred food choices. Hence, it is certain that adequate food supply for a certain population does not guarantee access across the entire population.
Finally, this statistic fails to include food waste. The 70% statistic doesn’t account for any declines in food waste we may achieve by 2050. This is a significant missing component considering that today about a third of food is wasted, amounting to roughly US $680 billion in industrialized countries and US $310 billion in developing countries. If only a quarter of the food wasted each year was saved, we would be able to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.
The excessive food waste we observe today, many argue, is a direct result of optimizing a system to produce cheap calories rather than “good-for-you” calories. For instance, in the retail sector, systems often prioritize overabundance in their operational models over sustainability. Food waste is also arguably a result of antiquated incentive programs and agricultural policies that have not been effectively updated since the 1950s. Food waste has a significant effect on the environment; the carbon footprint from food waste is estimated to be at least 3.3 gigatons. If all of the food waste formed a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas-emitting nation, following the total emissions of only the US and China.
Improving Access & Nutrition
The types of food produced and the methods of production need to be considered in order to efficiently and permanently address food insecurity. Although globally one billion people remain undernourished today, around 1.9 billion adults suffer from the excessive intake of calories that contributes to being overweight and obese; obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. It is clear that the massification of food production has encouraged consumption of cheap, yet nutritionally deficient food, a phenomenon now referred to as malconsumption.
Malconsumption impacts wealthy and developing nations alike, with countries like Mexico, New Zealand, Hungary, and the United States leading the globe in obesity rates. Evidence suggests dietary patterns and diets have been transformed with the evolution of globalization and increase in global food trade. Scientists have observed that when countries advance policies in agricultural production and trade and foreign direct investment, residents increase their consumption of vegetable oil and highly processed foods. Factors such as which foods are being produced and what foods are easily available to most of the population are important to consider when examining the obesity epidemic. Access to food— particularly fresh and “healthy” foods— as well as access to accurate nutritional knowledge is acutely unequal across the globe as well as across communities in developing and wealthy nations alike.
Addressing the food and health challenge as a socioeconomic one allows us to frame this challenge in terms of access (to healthy food options, health services, education, leisure time to exercise, etc.) as well as in terms of food production. Culturally, we have perceived choice as solely an individual’s decision. However, the link between culture and “fatness”—in which “fatness” is considered a result of an individual’s laziness or lack of control—reduces a global public health problem to an individual one. Considering obesity solely as a moral problem—in which an obese individual is simply a “lazy” or an “irresponsible” person—inaccurately focuses on individual choices. This distracts us from focusing on creating public policies in which food industries and corporations are involved and incentivized to be part of the solution.
Historically, many food companies have focused on developing optimized recipes to influence consumers’ tastes by increasing the desire for consumption and overriding satiety. For some companies these efforts bring together chemists, mathematicians, and psychologists, tasked with developing food products with “vanishing caloric density”, an industry trick to influence consumers to increase consumption. Frito-Lay spends up to $30 million a year conducting research to optimize the crunch, mouth feel, and aroma for items such as the classic Lay’s potato chips and Cheetos. These tactics, combined with the low prices and high accessibility for these highly processed snack foods, have disproportionately affected low-income and vulnerable populations’ choices.
However, food companies have the potential to play a key role in effectively addressing food insecurity. Private companies, particularly larger corporations, could support consumers’ health by providing healthier, affordable, and nutritious alternatives across all communities they serve. Private-public collaborations and increased food regulation—such as straightforward food labeling, marketing restrictions, and soda taxes to disincentivize items high in sugar, salt, or saturated fat—are important policy instruments that must be considered at a national level.
Responding to Climate Change
Introducing an environmental approach to food production is also paramount to effectively reducing food insecurity and developing a sustainable and resilient food system. By focusing only on food production, we limit opportunities to develop food systems that are resilient in the face of climate change. With climate change, we have experienced rising temperatures, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy rains. These conditions create increased unpredictability and disruption in the food system production and distribution chains. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that while climate change may benefit some plants by lengthening growing seasons and increasing levels of carbon dioxide, the overall effect includes reduced global food production by 2050 and a significant shift in the types of crops farmers will grow. Global warming is projected to reduce crop yield and nutritional content in some regions and is already affecting fisheries and aquaculture from ocean warming and acidification. Temperature rises in the U.S. are expected to reduce crop production and lead to further heat stress for livestock, which will likely result in a significant reduction of food production and will put rural livelihoods at risk.
Regenerative agriculture, a system of farming principles, has been identified as an alternative production method that centers around holistic land management. Research suggests that regenerative agriculture has the potential to close the carbon cycle, enhance crop resilience and nutrient density, and enrich soils, biodiversity, ecosystems, and watersheds. Various stakeholders from the non-profit, philanthropic, and private sector now advocate for developing a regenerative organic certification. In California, promising programs such as the Healthy Soils Action Plan help promote healthy soils on California’s farms and ranchlands.
It’s important to increase food production to successfully feed the expected population in 2050. However, the dominant framing of the food security debate today is too asymmetrical in nature, focusing solely on production and sidelining other key components such as food access and utilization. Furthermore, the current framework ignores environmental concerns related to how we produce food. The food security debate needs to be less concerned with increasing production and more invested in framing the issue in terms of how complex and interconnected the food system truly is. Changing this framework requires trans-disciplinary efforts among different fields, as well as collaboration across both the private and public sectors. Food and agricultural policy must be rooted in both evidence and systemic thinking to effectively create an inclusive, resilient, and sustainable food system and reduce hunger, food malconsumption, and food waste.
Maria F. Balcazar Tellez is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.