Food. We can only survive for up to three weeks without it so, naturally, we eat quite a bit. Food is what we understand as a necessity, an intrinsic right to your right to life as a human being. Yet across countries and communities, we consume, prepare, and appreciate food differently. Some of us take for granted the ten “fast food” eateries we pass on the walk to school while others save their weeks wages to provide a meal for their children. Some of us grow most of what we eat naturally while others rely on genetically modified products. Either way, we’re all sustaining our own lives by giving our bodies the nutrients it needs in and through food. As economists, we know food resources can run scarce and cause famine and it’s up to us to think of sustainable ways to grow while not depleting our food resources.
First, let’s talk about how food consumption looks different around the world. In 2005, American photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio released their book “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.” The book showcased 24 countries and depicts what an average family in each country would consume in a week and how much it cost. I’ll include a few of the photos below. The photos are from Chad, Egypt, and the United States featuring families who spent $1.23, $68.53, and $341.98 on their weekly groceries, respectively. According to worldbank.org, as of 2016, the GDP in Chad was $9,600,760, Egypt $336,296,920, and the United States $18,569,100,000. So we can draw comparison between a country’s gross domestic product and an average family’s diet and their willingness/ability to pay for said diet within that country.
Today, people are asking if our population is growing at a pace too fast for our resources to keep up with. In this respect, there are differing opinions amongst those answering the question. Professor Julian Cribb, author of ‘The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It’, wrote: “The world has ignored the ominous constellation of factors that now make feeding humanity sustainably our most pressing task – even in times of economic and climatic crisis.” Many agree that over time adjustments need to be made to our system in order to continue in the way in which we are currently producing and consuming food. The difference in thought is often the amount of time it will take for us to make those adjustments before it is too late. Often, it is said that by 2050 or so the demand for food will have increased at a rate that will be totally unsustainable for our food system. On the other hand, some scholars believe that “f you looked at the nutritional value of current food production instead, global food security was more tenuous than originally thought.” Here, I am citing too a TED talk by Gro Intelligence founder and chief executive Sara Menker. Ms. Menker believes that “year 2023 will be the crossover point when we will no longer be able to produce enough food to feed a growing population.”
In the short term, many economists and scholars feel that while the population is clearly growing exponentially (see chart below), we have been able to and will continue to be able to make the adaptations to maintain a sustainable food supply. The economist writes that,” food prices have been dropping in real terms since a spike in 2011” and that “the number of hungry people has been falling too, by 167 million in the past decade.” These results are largely a cause of technology which has allowed us to modify foods to last longer, produce more efficiently, and create accessibility. Even with these advancements, hunger still exists on a grand scale with “nearly 800m [people suffering from hunger], a third of which are in Africa.”
In summary, in the short term, we can be confident in the sustainability of our food production system, but economists and experts agree that if we do not make the proper adjustments and advancements necessary as time goes on we could end up in a world of trouble in just a few decades. This operates on a global scale and does not truly consider the families we met earlier from the photos of “What the World Eats.” When we consider the economic prosperity of certain countries and their access to resources and/or technology, there is a grander picture on world sustainability and we can ask ourselves what these countries that are better off are willing to do to help the rest of the world keep up and stay fed.
By Alex Gonzalez