Good news from the IMF about feeding the world’s people

Summary: Doomsters dominate the news, as they terrify us for fun and profit. Here’s good news from the IMF about global food production. See it here; you probably won’t see it in the news. Let’s not become complacent; the IMF warns of the large challenges that lie ahead.

Beating famine
Logo of the Beating Famine Conference.

“If current trends continue by the year 2000 the United Kingdom will simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people, of little or no concern to the other 5-7 billion inhabitants of a sick world. …If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

— Paul R. Ehrlich speaking in London at the Institute of Biology in Autumn 1969. From “In Praise of Prophets”, Bernard Dixon (Editor) in the New Scientist, 16 September 1971.

Doomsters have been predicting famine from overpopulation from Thomas Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) to Paul Ehrlich in The population bomb (1968). Population has risen as expected, but food production has increased even faster. It is one of the great success stories of modern technology.

The IMF’s “October 2016 World Economic Outlook” updates that good news. Food production has continued to increase rapidly as population growth has slowed. You probably won’t read about this in the news, but this excerpt from that report is worth reading (citations omitted). They look at good news of the past and challenges of the future. Past wins don’t guarantee future wins.

Population and food growth

Population growth over time

“The debate over the evolution of food supply relative to population growth dates back at least to the influential theory laid out by Malthus (1798). Since then, a large body of literature has explored the interplay between technology, population, and income per capita and how different growth regimes emerge. A central insight is that the modern era has been characterized by rapid economic growth and  divergence across countries, and that this stands in contrast with most of human history (the so-called Malthusian era), which was characterized by stagnant income per capita.

“…Volatility in food prices and outright food shortages have a crucial impact on the most basic aspect of welfare in poor countries — namely, survival. As shown in Table 1.SF.6, the share of food consumption in the overall consumption basket is dramatically high for many low-income countries. It is even higher for fragile states such as Guinea and Burundi. For middle-income countries, the share is somewhat lower but still significant — reaching up to about 50% of total consumption.

Mechanization is coming, bringing large-scale unemployment

“Globally, over 750 million individuals work in agriculture — that is, 30% of the workforce. In sub-Saharan Africa, 60% of the workforce labors in agriculture. Historically, the process of structural transformation that drove labor from the agricultural (low-productivity) sector to the industrial (high-productivity) sector can explain most of the fast increase in aggregate productivity.

Looking to the future

“The global population is forecast to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, up from 7.3 billion as of 2015. More than half of this increase — that is 1.3 billion — is expected to occur in Africa, the fastest growing region, and Asia is estimated to contribute 0.9 billion.

“…Land and technology availability are key drivers of food production. Most of the available land suitable for agriculture is located in developing regions — mostly sub-Saharan Africa and South America, as shown in Table 1.SF.1. Growing population, especially in Africa and Asia, will require an increase in food calorie production by 70% by 2050. Putting all unused land into service, assuming  everything else remains equal, would help feed 9 billion people — less than the 9.7 billion who will need to be fed by midcentury. It is important to note that this back-of-the-envelope calculation leaves aside other factors, such as potential technological innovations, reductions in food waste, and land degradation.

Great potential for increasing world agricultural yields.

Changes in agricultural yield by region over time

“There are wide gaps across countries in agricultural Yield — defined as crop production per unit of land cultivation, which is a measure of land productivity (Table 1.SF.3). These gaps reflect multifaceted impediments to investment and technology transfers in the agricultural sectors of developing economies. There is limited evidence of catching up in productivity between advanced economies and low-income countries. The example of maize shows a huge divergence in agricultural yields between North America and sub-Saharan Africa …

“Future food supply increases — necessary to feed the growing global population — ought to come mostly from productivity increases. Expanded use of land for agriculture should be limited to the extent possible in the interest of the environment and social concerns: biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, increased carbon emissions, and traditional land-use rights. The challenge therefore, is to find a way to increase the productivity of currently cultivated land and slow the rate of land degradation and deforestation. The potential to increase agricultural productivity is especially high in sub-Saharan Africa, where yields are 50% below their potential level.

Climate Change

“Climate change affects agriculture — through large economic losses such as reduced crop yields and livestock productivity — through changes in average temperatures and patterns of precipitation and extreme weather events such as heat waves. There are a host of other effects too, including changes in pests, diseases, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Generally, research has stressed unequal exposure across countries, with countries closer to the equator being more vulnerable to climate change than countries at higher latitudes.”

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Food prices have remained flat as consumption has risen

FAO Food Price Index
FAO Food Price Index, from the FAO website.

Conclusions

The fantastic increase in food production is a major factor driving the rise of the global middle class (per capital income of over $1,025), one of the great megatrends of our time — 22% of the world population lived in middle income countries in 1990, and 72% did in 2011 (see this World Bank presentation for an introduction to this good news).

Interesting times ahead. We must get through the mid-21st century, when world population peaks then begins a steep decline, without too much damage to the planet. Then our descendants can make Earth into a garden. It won’t be easy, but there is no cause for despair.

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7 thoughts on “Good news from the IMF about feeding the world’s people

    1. Tom,

      “increased yields means more starch in our diets, how’s that working out for everybody?”

      (1) Increased yields means less starvation. Large famines are now most often the result of political instability, not a bad harvest that kills millions. That’s working out just fine.

      (2) Another trends the IMF discusses is the shift of diets as incomes rise from starches to fruits, veg, and meat. More of the world’s population is moving into the middle class. That’s working out just fine. (The World Bank defines middle class as gross national income per capita of $1,025 (2015).

    2. Tom,

      “Borlaug himself was a Malthusian.”

      That’s not really correct. He was worried that population growth would result in famines, like any sensible person, until the evidence changed his mind — decreasing fertility (the population would peak, then fall) and increasing ag yields. In a speech on the 30th anniversary of his Nobel (8 September 2000) he said: “I now say that the world has the technology — either available or well advanced in the research pipeline — to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people.”

      Also see “Ending World Hunger. The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry” in American Society of Plant Physiologists, 1 October 2000.

  1. World hunger is as much a political problem as it is a technological one. The biotech Borlaug researched and advocated – growing high-input hybrid crops – helped countries like India massively increase their crop yields (making them net exporters), yet hunger and malnutrition have remained huge problems there. It’s not clear at all that this biotech is the best strategy for feeding the world.

    Tom Colbert:

    Many in the developing world live on a diet very high in starch and have astonishingly lower rates of the so-called ‘diseases of affluence’ (diabetes, heart disease, etc.) than the West.

    1. muscar,

      “World hunger is as much a political problem as it is a technological one.”

      I agree, but will state it more strongly. Over time hunger has become more often a result of political factors than natural ones.

      “It’s not clear at all that this biotech is the best strategy for feeding the world.”

      If you’re looking for the single solution to world hunger, there isn’t one. But biotech is a necessary component to feeding the 10 billion people that are almost certain to arrive.

  2. Are not populations in large regions of the world actually decreasing. China, Russia, all of Europe and even the USA. South and Central America I think is also steadying if not declining as well.

    Is the African continent actually increasing or is it steadying? I remember reading that indonesia is increasing and India as well and the Middle East is increasing as well but 4 major continents ae having lowering populations due to many factors and variables. Not so sure that the population will be 10 billion in the years ahead. I seem to be reading a lot of contradicting evidence about increase and decreasing world population. What are your thoughts.

    1. Dayton,

      “Are not populations in large regions of the world actually decreasing”

      No. A fertility rate below replacement will eventually produce a falling population, but demographic factors can delay that for several generations (e.g., a young population will increase in numbers even with low fertility, as kids arrive before the elders die).

      “China, Russia, all of Europe and even the USA.”

      Yes for Russia. Not yet for Europe and China. The US population is growing rapidly (see the Census projections).

      There are aprox 50 nations with falling populations (see a sortable list).

      “Is the African continent actually increasing or is it steadying?”

      Increasing. Its fertility is the largest wild card for population growth. If it does not follow the course of other nations as they developed, then the world might hit 12 billion people.

      For details about the UN population forecast see this post.

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