Demands for a more western diet in some emerging countries could have a more detrimental affect on global health and hunger than population growth
Why will nearly one in seven people go to bed hungry tonight? After all, the world currently produces enough food for everyone. Today’s major problems in the food system are not fundamentally about supply keeping up with demand, but more about how food gets from fields and on to forks.
Hunger – along with obesity, obscene waste and appalling environmental degradation – is an outcome of our broken food system. And the challenge of producing enough food to meet demand looks set to increase. With the world’s population expected to grow from around 7 billion today to more than 9 billion in 2050 – an increase of nearly one-third – there will certainly be a lot more stomachs to fill. The UN has forecast that, on current trends, demand may increase by 70% over the same period, and that’s without even tackling current levels of hunger.
But population growth, per se, is not the primary problem. By 2050 an estimated seven out of 10 people will live in poor countries reliant on food imports. The quantities of food eaten by each of these people every day is likely to be an unjustifiable fraction of what anyone reading this blog has already eaten today.
Instead, the real crunch is likely to come from the changing dietary preferences from people in some large emerging countries. Economic growth, urbanisation and rising affluence are increasingly bringing with them higher demand for convenient, processed foods, for meat, and for dairy products – in short, a more western diet.
This change in demand has significant environmental consequences. Feeding livestock is much less resource-efficient than growing grains for human consumption. Already, one-third of the world’s cereal harvest and more than nine-tenths of the world’s soya is used for animal feed. Soy-derived feed may be produced on, or indirectly contribute to expansion on to, cleared rainforest land. Rainforests are very important natural carbon sinks and therefore their clearance accelerates climate change, which is already challenging food production the world over.
The production of 1kg of beef uses 12 times the amount of water needed to produce 1kg of wheat, and more than five times the amount of land.
Changing diets bring significant social challenges. Malnourishment in the form of over-eating as well as under-eating will increasingly clog up healthcare systems and arteries in the developing world. In the rich world, obesity afflicts the poorer segments of society, because healthy foods are frequently more expensive. In the US, seven of the 10 states with the highest poverty levels are also among the 10 states with the highest rates of obesity. But in emerging countries obesity tends to be concentrated in the middle classes – those who lead more sedentary lifestyles and consume more processed foods. Countries such as Mexico and South Africa are having to increasingly deal with problems of the over-fed at the same time as those of the under-fed.
But before we point the finger at emerging economies for their rising consumption, let’s keep things in perspective. In 2007, the average American ate more than twice as much meat as the average Chinese resident. At the same time, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as the entire food production of sub-Saharan Africa. So while rising affluence and changing diets are certainly set to pose some challenges over the coming years, we should perhaps start by looking long and hard at the contents of own fridges and dustbins.
- Richard King is economic justice policy adviser at Oxfam GB
Source: Global food crisis: The challenge of changing diets – The Guardian UK
Date: 01 Jun 2011