By Meghna Tare
In 1798, Reverend Thomas Malthus wrote a book entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population. He laid out a simple proposition with a dire outcome. Assuming 1) that the food supply grows arithmetically (increasing at a constant rate of, say, 10 million tons of grain per year) and 2) that a healthy population grows geometrically (doubling every 30-50 years), the prospects for long run human progress and survival are dim. He argued that eventually population growth will outstrip the food supply.
Since Malthus wrote his book, human population has indeed grown rapidly. But food production has grown even more rapidly, as it evident from the Green Revolution from 1950 to 1980s. From 1950 to 1984, the world grain output increased by a factor of 2.6. Over the same period, population roughly doubled. The world’s population is expected to increase from 7 billion today to 9 or 10 billion by the end of the century, according to the United Nations thereby increasing the pressure on the food supply, especially in developing countries. This will require a 70 percent increase in food production, without additional land or natural resources to do so.
Modern agriculture produces a lot of food, and produces it cheaply; two feats that people have spent all of the industrial revolution to achieve. Joad’s story in “The Grapes of Wrath” portrays this model of economic development: low productivity, labor intensive small farmers driven off the land by high productivity and capital intensive agriculture.
But it is not just a matter of increased food production keeping up with population. Rising affluence has resulted in changing diets that increase the demand for food production per person. Because of the overall rise in income, we actually have more disposable income than our grandparents did, but our spending on food — proportional to our income — has actually declined dramatically since 1960, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average share of per capita income spent on food fell from 17.5 percent in 1960 to 9.9 percent in 2013.
So, in essence we are paying less for what we need more: food! We are producing more food at the expense of quality to support the population, but in the process putting a strain on land and water resources, and displacing small farmers and local communities because they are not able to meet the demands of big supermarket chain. Malthus captured the sense in which fundamental limits on natural capital place a bound on supply, which when combined with rising demand eventually leads to unsustainable outcome.
Free Market to solve the food crisis
About ten years ago, a few food banks and Feeding America gathered together in Chicago to figure out how to be efficient in distributing the food to all the food banks. Feeding America had trouble moving the oranges from California to Alaska or potatoes from Idaho to some other state because of the way the transportation system was set up. This system had real consequences for hungry people all over the country. It meant that people in Alaska were not getting fresh produce. And at the same time, the food bank in Idaho had too many potatoes and not enough other stuff. So Feeding America created its own little economy and gave out fake money to all the food banks, which they could use to buy the food- distributing fake money to the neediest places and then letting them buy whatever they wanted out of this national Feeding America system. It was like setting up a whole economy. Fake money, prices set by auctions, and with that key twist; the food banks that fed the most people would get the most fake money. The fake money could be treated like an allowance. The food banks could spend it every day on something little, or hoard it and splurge on large quantities of desired product like corn flakes cereal. For stuff that’s really unpopular, food banks did not want to pay to truck it in or find a place to store it. So they could bid negative shares. In other words, say for example Feeding America has large qualities of pickles; the food bank will take the pickles in exchange for some extra fake money.
This is free market at its best. Skeptics however believe that free markets are a cause of food scarcity. The problem is in fact, that free markets aren’t working efficiently enough. Lots of food that is actually produced out in the fields never makes it to markets, at least not in any condition to be eaten. That’s because the physical elements of a functioning market – usable roads, efficient transportation and storage facilities – simply haven’t received sufficient investment.
And then there is the problem of information flowing. Farmers don’t always have real-time access to reliable information on prices and forecasts. Empowering farmers with better information and communications tools will help farmers have information about markets at their fingertips and can better plan their harvests and distribution. Advanced information technology, improved communications systems, robotics, drones, and other new technologies have the potential to boost agricultural yields.
And lastly, there’s the problem of food waste. If our best chance of escaping a future food crisis is innovation and policies, then an obvious place to look for a solution is food waste. Somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of the food we grow around the world goes uneaten. Food waste is a tremendous global problem, with an estimated 24 percent of calories produced for human consumption never getting eaten. Most of this waste happens at the final consumption stage. The Guardian reports that “the average French person throws out 20 to 30 kilograms (44 to 66 pounds) of food a year – 7 kg (15 lbs) of which is still in its wrapping.” American shoppers throw away about one-fifth of everything they buy at the grocery store, according to a fascinating documentary called “Just Eat It.”
On the other end of the supply chain, retailers often find themselves with food that is bruised or otherwise unattractive but still edible. Technology and innovative policies could help to connect this food with people who could use it. Spoiler Alert, a website, smartphone app and online marketplace finds good uses for spoiled, expiring, and excess food and enable food banks and other poverty-focused organizations to find out about these products and claim them. Refrigeration and modern packaging technologies can increase the safety of our food, the distance across which it can be transported, and its extended freshness. The French national assembly recently voted unanimously to pass as legislation banning French supermarkets with a footprint of 4,305 sq ft from throwing away or destroying unsold food, and must instead donate it to charities or for animal feed. This legislation is passed at a time when France battles an epidemic of wasted food that has highlighted the divide between giant food firms and people who are struggling to eat. France’s new law is a move in the right direction. Wasting food needs to become a socially abhorrent thing to do – much like tossing garbage on the ground or throwing trash in recycle bins. Such “circular economy” approaches to food system will help us solve the food crisis.
Today’s complex challenges cannot be solved with a single solution; there is no silver bullet. With finite resources investment in research, innovative technologies and breaking down barriers to access are necessary to ensure food security for future generations.
Image credit: Flickr/Dean Hochman
Meghna is the Executive Director, Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact at the University of Texas at Arlington where she promotes sustainability in greening facility operations, promoting innovative research, and supporting and encouraging student initiatives. She recommends policies and strategies to advance the university’s commitment to sustainability. She is a TEDx UTA speaker, graduated with an MBA in Sustainable Management, was featured as Women in CSR by TriplePundit,, and is an active blogger. You can follow her on twitter @meghnatare , connect with her on LinkedIn or visit her website.