Feeding the world: What would work to boost the global food supply
There are a number of proven, common-sense strategies that can be put to work with minimal environmental impact:
American growers use a lot of fertilizer. And corn, over 85 percent of which is genetically engineered, requires more fertilizer than almost any other crop, while contributing little to the food supply.12 Over-fertilizing also leads to water quality problems and increased emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Smarter use of fertilizers would have the dual benefits of increasing the food supply in places that need it most while reducing the damage done to water and air quality. If the fertilizer were used in places with nutrient-poor soils where it would have the greatest impact, instead of over-fertilizing industrial-scale farms in rich countries, global production of major cereals could be increased by 30 percent.13
Reducing food waste
By weight, a third of all food grown around the world – accounting for a quarter of calories – goes uneaten, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.14 The food is scrapped before it reaches market or is thrown away at home. In theory, eliminating all food waste in fields, at grocery stores and at home could increase the global calorie supply by 33 percent.
In the United States, the situation is even worse. About 40 percent of America’s food production – 60 million metric tons a year worth an estimated $162 billion15 – goes to waste. That amounts to about 1,500 calories of discarded food per person each day16 – enough to feed 170 million people a 2,700-calorie-per-day diet. Reducing waste by just 30 percent would yield enough calories to feed about 50 million people, the same number as live in food-insecure households in the U.S.17
Most food waste in the United States and Europe occurs at home or in restaurants and supermarkets. Tossing food is not only a waste of money, it also takes a significant environmental toll: 31 percent of U.S. cropland and 25 percent of U.S. fresh water consumption goes to grow that uneaten food.16
In developing countries, about a third of all food goes to waste, but most of this happens on the farm or is due to lack of storage or inability to get the food to market.18 Improving infrastructure such as roads, transportation, and storage facilities is essential to reducing food waste in developing countries. Being able to get food to market and store it until it’s needed is crucial to increasing the incomes of poor, small farmers.
Reversing biofuels incentives
Using food crops to make biofuels takes calories out of the food system. In 2010, about 5 percent of the calories grown globally were used to make biofuels.19 In the United States, about 40 percent of corn production goes to produce corn ethanol, largely driven by the federal mandate to blend it into vehicle fuel under the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Shifting crops used for biofuels back into food production could increase the global calorie supply by 8 percent, but in many countries the trend is in the opposite direction. They are increasing biofuels mandates, using food crops as feedstock and potentially exacerbating food security concerns. According to a recent analysis by the non-profit World Resources Institute, by 2050 biofuels mandates could consume the equivalent of 29 percent of all calories currently produced on the world’s croplands.19 Reversing course on food-based biofuels policies could alleviate the need to double the global calorie supply.
Small changes in what we eat can lessen the burden on resources and potentially increase food availability. Today meat production occupies about three-quarters of all agricultural land, and on average it takes about 10 calories of animal feed to produce just one calorie of meat.12 Shifting from grain-fed beef to a diet emphasizing chicken or grass-fed beef could reduce the amount of land devoted to growing animal feed such as corn and soy.
In an analysis published in 2013, the author found that in theory, shifting all crops grown for animal feed to human food could increase food availability by 54 percent.12 Cutting global meat consumption in half could increase food supplies by 27 percent. In a less drastic scenario, calorie availability could increase by 20 percent if just the United States, western Europe and Brazil switched half of their animal feed and biofuels crops to human food.20
Reducing meat consumption in countries that eat large amounts, the U.S. among them, would also have health benefits, because eating large quantities of meat is associated with obesity,21 heart disease22 and some cancers.23,24 Lowering the total calories we consume could also lessen the environmental burden of food production.