In the beginning of June The Economist published an interesting article on the future of agriculture and how new technologies can help improve yields and reduce the required resources for food production. The growing world population requires more food and climate change may take its toll on agriculture. Among the examples for getting better harvests and increasing efficiency in food production were the use of GPS for more directed fertilizing, gene technology as a means to improve yields and make crops resistant to disease and big data analytics to analyze the effects of selected technologies on food production.
The article discussed how food production can be made more effective and efficient, but it also provoked thoughts in to the direction of equality and food consumption.
In the article was the below graphic from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showing the estimated global consumption of calories per capita and food source by 2050.
What struck my eye was the estimate on food intake of about 3´000 kilocalories per person per day in 2050. Based on the same graphic, that is an increase of about 13% from the 2010 level of roughly 2’650 kilocalories and an increase of 25% from the level in 1970. Yet, we certainly are not more active on average, and a large portion of the population is doing office work, a trend unlikely to see an end any time soon as robots take over the more physical tasks.
The Economist cites a FAO report from 2009 that estimated the required increase in agricultural production to be 70% in order to meet the forecast demand induced by increases in global population and food intake per capita. The Western World is already battling with obesity and the developing economies are, unfortunately, catching up, so the required increases on food production could be more moderate, if we put more effort into keeping ourselves at a healthy weight and eating what we need instead of what we want. As the FAO estimates the world population to be 9.7 billion by 2050, just keeping the average caloric consumption at current levels would require an increase of 30-40% in the global food production based on the population growth of 2.4 billion from today’s 7.3 billion. This would require only half of the growth required to meet also the increases in expected average food consumption per capita.
Wasting food, saving time
The technological advances in farming technology, gene technologies, aquaculture and other related fields might be enough to increase food production as required by the increasing population and the growing average food consumption. But I think it would be irresponsible to use all that technological capacity regardless of whether we actually need it or not to feed the whole world adequately. If we make more and more food available, even with the same resources, we either end up eating more with stable or even reduced activity levels, inducing obesity, or we end up wasting more of the food if it won’t be eaten. The first option would be undesirable since all we end up with is more obese people who have to be treated. This would lead to increased costs in health care, and these costs are avoidable just by avoiding eating all that much.
The second option, more food being available and more going to waste is not necessarily a bad option. For example, if the availability of food reduces people’s time spent on doing grocery shopping and the time required “for finding food”, the benefits may overweigh the costs of the wasted food. If a high-skilled person can use this extra time to do productive work and the value of his output is higher than the value of the wasted food that is allocated to him, it is clearly beneficial to have an abundance of food and throw part of it away. The problem here is that such an analysis, especially on a global level is not trivial: How much time each person can spare? How will the person use this time? What is the value of the activities and their outputs that came out of this extra time? How can we even measure the value of these outputs coherently? Is it morally acceptable to use food for time optimization in some countries when others have their people starving?
The above questions are just some that we would have to answer, but I think that any economist worth his bread could give at least an indication how to approach the problem. Gaining global commitment and coordination for such endeavors is yet a further complication.
Food for the hungry, food for thought
Whether or not we will use new technology to improve our global productivity by making food more readily available to all, I think it is clear that famine, malnutrition and obesity are problems that have to be solved in any case.
Since we already have, on average, enough nutrition to feed the whole world, maybe we should use the technological advancements selectively to distribute the available food and nutrition more equally and efficiently. This can take place either locally by use of better farming methods or via centralized farming and global logistics, depending on which alternative if more effective and efficient.
In 2013 FAO estimated in its report on food and agriculture (see page 5 of the report) the global costs of undernutrition and micro-nutrient deficencies to be 2–3% of the global GDP of some USD 70–80 trillion, and the costs of non-communicable diseases, for which overweight and obesity are key risk factors, to be in aggregate about 2% of the global GDP in 2010 during the following two decades. Clearly, undernutrition is still the larger problem, by a factor of 20, yet the increasing obesity problem all over the world should be tackled now, before it becomes, well, bigger.
As I see it, undernutrition and obesity can be partially targeted with complementary methods. Undernutrition is caused by too little high quality food, while obesity is caused by too much food in relation to activity levels, and the food eaten might also be of inferior quality, lacking in nutrients. Therefore, the key would be to improve the general nutritional quality of consumed food all over the world. I am not going to start a lecture on sugary drinks and high-fructose corn-syrup, but they are admittedly in the center of the discussion, when it comes to low-quality food. The total cost aspect of nutritious food and increased activity levels leading to reduced health care costs is also an important point in this discussion.
As other areas of life, we might and should think food and physical activity as daily choices. Life goes on every moment and waiting for the right time to do things or start something is useless; it’s never the right time, so we should start now. Likewise, our daily food choices and activity are what keeps us healthy, not some miracle diets and fitness programs that are waiting to be started in the future.
What am I doing to help? Currently, just minding my daily choices. As Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” If you wish for more active people, be more active. If you wish people ate healthier, eat healthier.