Skip to content

Should People Worry about Food Security?

March 4, 2016

Short answer: No.

People have always worried about food security. It is built into our DNA from eons of evolution. Organisms that don’t worry about food die out. So keeping that in mind, it is not surprising that people still worry about food even if those worries are outdated in the modern world.

The question of food security is an extremely dangerous one. If societies neglect it, they face famine. If they worry about it too much, genocide, war, coercive birth reduction/forced abortion, and xenophobia rear their ugly heads. The fear of starvation drove the Nazi’s Holocaust and Lebensraum policies. It’s not like the Germans all wanted 100 acre ranches for fun, they thought they would need that land to grow food. It’s also the concern that drove China’s one child policy, which led to the butchering of millions of infants, not to mention the cost of prohibiting people from having the families they wanted. It also contributed to the British inflicting the Bengal Famine on India in 1943. Food security is a deadly serious question.

Malthus
Organisms expand exponentially, unless constrained. Land is limited, and adding more farmers to a fixed plot of land results in diminishing returns: the first farmer might be able to grow 500 food, the second will increase production to 900, the third 1200, etc. Eventually the land simply won’t produce enough to feed additional farmers working it.

So, we’re left in a dilemma. Either birth rates must limited or people will have children until some of them starve. The option that actually happened – exponential food supply growth – was not considered by Malthus. In his defense, it would have seemed absurd to any level headed scientist of his time period. Today, exponential capacity to produce food has continued, but birth rates are dramatically lower than in the past, and in many countries have fallen below replacement.

worldwide population growth

world_fertility_rate_by_region

worldwide per capita food-prod-1960

And even as food production has increased at such a dramatic rate, amazingly, input use is down! That is, people are using less labor and less land to produce these ever increasing amounts of food.

mon-ag-outputs-and-inputs

crop yields Source
Poor countries could increase world yields by catching up to the developed world.

Technology
Technology has been the savior of humanity, from the plow, to irrigation, to tractors, fertilizers, domestication, selective breeding, GMOs, soil analysis, and a host of other technologies. Heroes like Norman Borlaug have saved millions of lives by developing technologies to improve food production. As the population increases, and societies get richer, more people like him will be able to discover more and more. People worry a lot about phosphorus running out, global warming, or other environmental disasters, but honestly, I think we’ll figure something out. Humans are remarkably good at coming up with creative solutions to problems.

There’s a lot of wiggle room
Vegitarianism – if famine were a real threat, people could scale back meat consumption dramatically. You lose a lot of calories by converting grain to meat.
feedtoprotien_chart

land_mammals

We waste a ton of corn turning it into inefficient ethanol:
CornUseChange
Once electric cars become cost effective, we won’t even need it anymore.

Wasted Food/meat – much of food is wasted. Now, you couldn’t get this down to 0%, but on the margin, if food became much more scarce, people could save more of it. A lot of the time, people cite waste as an inefficiency, but that’s not really true from an economic perspective. If food is very cheap, people have no reason to conserve it. You conserve valuable things, and you can afford to waste cheap things. People have never spent less on food than they do right now.

food-spending-as-a-share-of-us-personal-disposable-income-food-share-of-disposable-personal-income_chartbuilder-1

The Future
There are dozens of plausible new technologies that could massively increase food production.
Vat grown meats have the potential to dramatically lower the amount of grain needed to make meat, not to mention making it more humane. Aquaculture and mariculture could dramatically expand the available “land” available for food production. GMOs could increase yields and lower the amount of pesticides and fertilizer needed. People could eat protein made from insects instead of mammals. The most powerful technology at all isn’t new – it’s simply distributing the technologies developed and in use today in the rich world to the developing world and making the capital investments necessary to use them. There is the potential to increase food production enough to feed billions more people, and with birth rates dropping like they are, that probably won’t even be necessary. Fortunately for everyone, mass famine is a highly unlikely scenario.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2016 5:34 pm

    Even without any new technology per acre food production can increase greatly. As evidence the yields per acre are much greater in the developed countries than in the rest of the world and the record yields per acre are much higher than the yields in the developed world.

    Currently yields per acre are going up faster than population is going up and even without improved technology that will continue.

    • March 14, 2016 4:40 pm

      Good point. I should add a graph showing agricultural productivity between various countries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: