How Much More Food Must the World Produce?
It is the goal of many economists to lift the entire world’s population up to a western standard of living. This increase in living standard would by definition include adopting something like a western diet for everyone. One would hope that this should be a fairly straightforward endeavor — all we’d have to do is improve the productivity of our plant strains, farms, and labour, and these changes would result in the production of more food.
Economists don’t stop there, however, and beyond enthusiastically volunteering the planet to provide all living people with a western diet, many economists also feel that it is the duty of the planet to additionally provide all future people with such a diet as well. Most social statisticians estimate that the world’s population will plateau at around 9 billion people, or roughly 2 billion more than today.
This is an admirable goal generally rooted in good intentions (though not entirely altruistic, however, considering the lucrative profit opportunities such noble causes will present to certain strategically positioned agricultural sectors). But before we get too caught up in grandiose visions of future prosperity, let’s not forget that contrary to what most economists believe, it is not our economies that produce this food; the planet actually produces it. Our economies consume food. Therefore, it’s probably a good idea to first ask the important questions before embarking on such journeys of hope and goodwill towards all humankind:
- How much additional food would actually be needed to provide this western-equivalent diet to the entire living and future human populations?
- Is it reasonable to believe that the planet could produce that much additional food?
I will first attempt to answer Question #1, which turns out to be a pretty simple analysis, and then later move on to Question #2, which is a bit more involved.
So then, how much food would the world need to produce to provide not only current people with a western diet, but also future people too?
Luckily, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has extensive country-by-country statistics detailing food consumption which are very useful in making these calculations. They are available here.
Firstly, let’s start with a list of the average per-person Caloric intake for each country (my numbers are shown in red while original data is in black).
Because some countries are absent from the data, the sum of the total world population in this table comes up short of 7 billion. But this is not a problem because I am interested in the ratio of differences between countries, not the total global population. These numbers can be scaled up to 7 billion after the calculation.
You will notice that despite the wide range in overall prosperity between various countries around the world, per-person Caloric intake doesn’t actually vary that much. It ranges from about 1900 Calories per day in poor African nations up to near 3800 Calories in the more affluent developed countries. That’s only twice as much food. This doesn’t sound like too much of a variation in food consumption, as well as the resources necessary to support that consumption, especially since it’s well known that westerners eat way too much food for their health anyways.
So it would be tempting to use a population weighted ratio for each country to bring their diet up to 3500 Calories per-person per-day and then see how much more food would need to be produced globally to provide for this.
This doesn’t look too bad. We’d only need a 26% increase in global food production to bring everyone to 3500 Calories per day. This is certainly a tall order given how the planet’s current ecosystems are strained just to feed us today, but it’s not fantastically too far out of reach.
However, what this 26% figure fails to take into account that is hidden within the numbers is the wide variations between countries in terms of the proportion of those Calories that come from animal sources. While total Calories eaten don’t vary a whole lot around the world, what does vary significantly is the sources of those Calories. And we know from an understanding of the trophic pyramid that it requires many pounds of wheat to produce a pound of meat. This factor can vary from around 6 to more than 10.
So now we need some additional data which breaks down the global variations in diet by Calorie source:
From this it can be seen that there is a much wider variation in diets if we look at the proportion of meat in people’s diets, versus simply Caloric intake, ranging from as low as about 4% in the poorest nations to 40% in more affluent ones (Iceland is the highest). That is 10 times greater, versus 2 times greater if we simply consider a Calorie a Calorie!
Therefore, if we want to bring everyone up to a western diet, not only are people going to be eating 3500 Calories a day, but it seems that about 30% of those will be coming from animal sources. And since producing meat first requires that a large amount of plant food be produced in order to feed the animals, and if we want to estimate how much total food the world will have to produce, then we should also include the production of this animal feed.
What trophic efficiency factor should we use? Typically, mechanized meat production in the US requires about 6 Calories of plant material to produce an equivalent Calorie of animal product. This fairly low figure is a result of the significant fossil fuel and irrigation inputs to mechanized agriculture in the “developed” world. In the less developed world, the ratio is probably over 10, but on the flip side, there is less input from fossil fuels in that kind of lower intensity agriculture. I’ll be generous and use a factor of 6. This could probably be analyzed and broken down more thoroughly, and I may do this in the future if I find the data, but for now this number is sufficiently accurate.
Here are those calculations, and I hid several intermediate columns for brevity’s sake. As expected, Bangladesh would require many more Calories to be brought up to a western style diet than would Austria, which requires none.
This table presents quite a different picture than the one above. It shows that in order to bring the existing world’s population up to a western diet, the planet would have to produce 2.3 times as much food, or a 130% increase. That’s substantially greater than the 26% increase based on the simplistic analysis above that ignored the complications of meat production — in fact, it’s 5 times greater!
And beyond this increased food production required to bring everyone today up to a western-equivalent diet, when we add in the extra 2 billion people soon to be joining us, the amount of food needed jumps to 3.1 times today! That’s a 210% increase! But wait … there’s more — if we instead use a trophic efficiency factor of 10, the numbers then jump to 3 and 4 times current food production, for 7 and 9 billion people, respectively.
These results are not concerned with how that food is produced or whether the planet will be able to produce it; they are merely stating that this is the amount of extra food that will be required of the planet to achieve the goal of bringing everyone up to a western style diet. There isn’t much room for argument here. The only significant assumption in these numbers is the trophic efficiency factor in producing meat from plants, which I selected as 6. This is actually probably too low on a globally averaged basis, especially since the countries that would require the greatest increase in meat production in order to be brought up to a western diet are also the countries which would not likely be using such efficient factory farming techniques as does the western world. I am also assuming that every culture in the world would aspire to a western-equivalent diet if provided the means; many likely would not, however, as overconsumption is a cultural trait that is pushed on western societies.
Now that we’ve answered Question #1, we can begin to frame the answer to Question #2, which asks if the planet is capable of providing that much biological productivity. Considering that rough estimates put the total amount of global productivity sequestered or degraded by humanity at around 25%, then increasing food production by 3.1 times brings us way up to something like 50% (depending on how much of that appropriation is for food)! That is 50% of the entire productivity of the planet — devoted to humanity! Wow!
I don’t know about you, but that sounds a little scary to me. Considering that the planet is currently severely strained in trying to just feed us living mortals with our current lifestyles, then tripling or quadrupling the amount of food produced to additionally accommodate all the future souls eagerly awaiting their arrival into our world seems like a pretty tall order indeed!
What factors need to be taken into account to determine if this will be possible? Firstly, in analyzing our current food production capabilities, we need to separate out the unsustainable inputs that boost food production today but cannot be expected to continue indefinitely into the future. These include things like:
- depletion of fossil fuel inputs which facilitate transportation and power mechanized farming equipment,
- depletion of fossil fuel inputs needed to produce synthetic fertilizers,
- depletion of other fertilizer sources, like potash,
- soil degradation due to salination resulting from irrigation in arid areas, and from depletion of soil micronutrients that are not replaced with conventional fertilizers,
- depletion of groundwater used for irrigation,
- overfishing, or “fishing down the food chain“. Meat farms do not produce food; they merely shift the location of production of that food. The food was actually produced somewhere else. Salmon farms require significant food fish inputs (smaller fish), and these need to be caught somewhere. This places farmed salmon several rungs up the trophic pyramid above plants, and each step up has a reduction in carrying capacity due to successive trophic efficiency factors,
- further ecological degradation due to increased human industrialization and contamination across the landscape (and seascape),
- as fossil fuels become scarce, biofuel production will compete with food production for ecological productivity,
- loss of biodiversity as natural ecosystems are gobbled up, which would tend to lead to an increased incidence of agricultural plagues, and a general decrease in the planet’s overall functioning given that the biosphere will be centrally planned less by “Gaia” (however you’d like to define that), and increasingly centrally planned by bankers and business tycoons. Not good!
These things are all happening right now. We know that they are going to continue and they can be expected to intensify. Beyond these, there also seems to be additional issues hanging over our future that may or may not lead to significant further constraints on global food production:
- productivity losses from climate change,
- loss of productive coastal farmland due to rising sea levels, and the loss of inland agricultural areas as people from coastal areas are displaced inwards,
- decreased productivity of the oceans due to acidification from increased carbon dioxide concentrations, which negatively impacts the planktonic base of the ocean food chain,
- potential loss of production line efficiency due to social breakdown in the event of economic collapses or wars,
- Here’s a scary question: What if the global population doesn’t stop at 9 billion?
Countering these factors which would tend to decrease the productivity of the planet are these other factors which may (or may not) increase it:
- development of alternative energy systems that may have greater overall potential than current fossil fuel based systems,
- these energy systems may be able to power desalination plants which could be used to irrigate deserts which are currently unproductive,
- productivity gains from climate change (the net impact of this remains unknown),
- possible increased plant growth from higher carbon dioxide levels,
- gains of productive coastal marine habitats due to flooding of previous land areas,
- further advances in genetic engineering to develop more productive crop strains,
- increased trophic efficiency of meat production systems in developing nations,
- increased food production from intensive and sustainable organic farming methods, i.e. “permaculture”.
Clearly, answering these questions is quite a bit more involved than the first part of this analysis. I’ll continue to work on this as I gather and analyze data.