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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Worried About How the World Will Feed Itself?

The world's population is projected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, but what about food production? Can the world feed itself or are we already destined to suffer shortages? 

Food production presents a complex mix of issues such as climate change, water supply, technology transfer, transportation and human rights, so I won't give a complete analysis here. Instead, I will provide some data to help build the context for assessing any reports you may read elsewhere (and there is quite a lot).

This data on agricultural output was sourced from the UN statistical database and is freely available on the web. It shows how much the entire world's nations produced every year since 1970, and it may be a bit surprising.

Let's start with a graph that plots 2 key parameters. First is total output, which gives you an idea of the condition of the agricultural sector by showing how much it has grown. This is encouraging, as the total annual production has increased significantly.

However, the population has also increased over the period so total output alone cannot indicate whether there was enough growth. So the second parameter is agricultural output per capita.
-click the graph to enlarge it-

The blue line shows that total output has more than doubled over the period, an average growth rate of 2.34% per year.
The red line shows that output per person has grown at a lower rate, 0.72% per year.
So regardless of the fact that the world's population has increased, agricultural production has grown more quickly than the population. 
A quick look at the graph also clearly indicates the effect of the Soviet collapse in 1990. World output per capita was set back about 20 years in the early 90s, recovered by 2002 and has continued growing faster than the population.
Of course recent history does not guarantee that the trend will continue, but it does prove that agriculture can increase productivity and output levels. It also shows that population pressure is not a new issue, or one that should necessarily be daunting.

I should note that in the UN classification system, agriculture includes forestry and fishing. This might cause doubt that the world's food production is rising. A second data source can be used to confirm or refute the above result. 

The UN FAO Summary of Food and Agricultural Statistics[1] reports sectoral growth rates over three decades: the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. World average growth in agricultural production held steady over the three decades at 2.4%, 2.4%, and 2.3% respectively. The corresponding population growth remained lower at 1.7% in the 1980s and 1.4% in the 1990s (no population data was reported for the 1970s). 

The same pattern held true for Africa and Asia, albeit by a smaller margin. By this measure, world agricultural output grew between 40% and 60% faster than population and is reconfirmed by reported growth in food availability for every region worldwide. 

Is this also confirmed by most food commodities? Food availability per capita has grown in every continent over the past four decades except for a 2.3% decline in Oceania (UNFAO report page 69). This is accompanied by a reduction in the percentage of undernourished within each continental population

[1] Summary of Food and Agricultural Statistics 2003, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Rome 2003

1 comment:

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