Conquering hunger

13 Nov 2013

In the late 1990s I gave a talk at a highly charged conference on GMs at which I stated that there was progressively less hunger in the world. Naturally, I checked my facts with some aid agencies before making such a statement. I attributed this good news to a more plentiful supply of food because of higher yields, but didn’t highlight the role of any specific agricultural technology. I didn’t even think of GM crops being a factor because at that time they had only just been introduced in the USA.

This did not stop the fledgling anti-GM movement from saying, both at the conference and in follow up statements, that I was lying. Their implication was that ‘modern agriculture’ was failing to meet the challenge of a rapidly expanding world population.

Nowadays, the FAO publishes estimates of world hunger which provide hard data rather than opinion. It shows that A gradually decreasing proportion of the world population is described as undernourished - falling from around 19% in 1990 to around 12% in 2013. The percentage of undernourished people has fallen in all regions, but not in all countries, of the world. Tragically, there’s still around 20% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia that does not have sufficient food.

Whilst the percentage of undernourished people has fallen significantly over the last 20 years or so the world population has increased significantly.  So the question has to be asked as to whether there are now fewer undernourished people than then? Rather amazingly the world population has increased from just over 5 billion in 1990 to around 7 billion in 2013, almost as much of a proportional increase as the decrease, over the same period, in the proportion that is undernourished. Hence, the absolute number of people that are recorded as undernourished (now 842 million) is not dramatically below that in 1990 (1,015 million). So whilst modern agriculture can pat itself on the back for feeding the world’s rapidly expanding population there are still many challenges ahead.

This emphasises the need to be very careful when quoting statistics. I would have been absolutely correct to say in my talk that the proportion of the world population that is undernourished was falling but this would have ignored the fact that the fall in the number of people in this category was not so significant. There are plenty of instances where ill-defined statements can be misleading. For example, a recent report showed that the UK has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 20% since 1990. Great news, until you read in the same report that the UK has increased its carbon footprint by 10% over the same period because of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production and transport of the goods we’re importing in increasing amounts.

There’s an active debate about how farming should be structured in the less developed parts of the world in order to meet these food security challenges of the future. There appear to be two contrasting views. The first, which is being championed by some charities, is that very small scale family units are the solution. The opposite view, taken by some of the more industrially-based organisations, is that very much larger and professionally managed units are necessary. I can’t really comment on this dichotomy other than to say that the farms need to be sufficiently large to provide a surplus of food in order to create a market and to stimulate other parts of the economy. It is precarious, to say the least, to rely solely on barely self-sufficient units. This was the objective in Cambodia when Pol Pot tried to impose his communist-based agrarian Utopia.