“Too many people, too little food” is not the cause of hunger and food insecurity

Almost one in three people in the world did not have access to sufficient food in 2020. That’s an increase of almost 320 million people in one year, and it’s expected to get worse with rising food prices and the war ravaging wheat, barley and corn in Ukraine and Russia.

Floods, fires and extreme weather caused by climate change, combined with armed conflict and a global pandemic, have exacerbated this crisis by affecting the right to food.

Many assume that world hunger is caused by “too many people, not enough food”. This notion has existed since the 18th century, when economist Thomas Malthus posited that human population would eventually exceed the carrying capacity of the planet. This belief keeps us from addressing the root causes of hunger and malnutrition.

In fact, injustice and armed conflict play a bigger role. The world’s hungry live disproportionately in Africa and Asia, in conflict zones.

As a researcher working on food systems since 1991, I believe that addressing the root causes is the only way to combat hunger and malnutrition. For this we need a fairer distribution of land, water and income as well as investments in sustainable food and peacebuilding.

But how will we feed the world?

The world produces enough food to provide every man, woman and child with more than 2,300 kilocalories a day, which is more than enough. However, poverty and inequality – structured by class, gender, race and the effects of colonialism – have led to unequal access to the earth’s riches.

Despite sufficient food production worldwide, poverty and inequality restrict many people’s access to healthy food.
(FAO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020)CC BY

Half of the world’s crop production consists of sugarcane, corn, wheat and rice – a large proportion of which is used for sweeteners and other high-calorie, nutrient-poor products, as feed for processed meat, biofuels and vegetable oil.

The global food system is controlled by a handful of transnational corporations that produce highly processed foods containing sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives. Overconsumption of these foods kills people around the world and taxes healthcare costs.

Nutrition experts say we should limit sugar, saturated and trans fats, oils and simple carbohydrates, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, with only a quarter of our plate made up of protein and dairy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also recommends switching to a sustainable, healthy diet.

A recent study showed that overconsumption of highly processed foods — soft drinks, snack foods, breakfast cereals, packaged soups and confectionery — can lead to negative environmental and health impacts such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

By moving the world away from highly processed foods, their negative impact on land and water is also reduced, and energy use is reduced.

A piece of land in a green, mountainous terrain with a handful of wooden houses.
Land reform initiatives in Madagascar have contributed to further plans to redistribute land and reduce food insecurity.

We live in a world of plenty

Since the 1960s, global agricultural production has outpaced population growth. Nonetheless, even as world population peaks, Malthusian theory continues to focus on the risk of population growth exceeding Earth’s carrying capacity.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s study of the 1943 Great Bengal Famine challenged Malthus by showing that millions died of starvation because they did not have the money to buy food, not because of food shortages.

In 1970, the Danish economist Ester Boserup also questioned Malthus’ assumptions. She argued that rising incomes, women’s equality and urbanization would eventually stunt population growth, with birth rates falling to or below replacement levels even in poor countries.

Food – like water – is an entitlement and public order should flow from it. Unfortunately, land and income remain very unequally distributed, leading to food insecurity, even in affluent countries. While land redistribution is notoriously difficult, some land reform initiatives – like those in Madagascar – have been successful.

The Role of War in Hunger

Hunger is compounded by armed conflict. The countries with the highest rates of food insecurity have been devastated by war, like Somalia. More than half of malnourished people and nearly 80 percent of stunted children live in countries grappling with some form of conflict, violence or fragility.

Women stand in line with empty food containers.
Women queue at a camp in Somalia on May 18, 2019 for food to be distributed by local volunteers. Conflict is hampering the effective delivery of humanitarian aid during the food crisis.
(AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that the war in Ukraine puts 45 African and least-developed countries at risk of a “hunger pang” because they import at least a third of their wheat from Ukraine or Russia. According to the New York Timesthe World Food Program was forced to cut rations for nearly four million people because of higher food prices.

Ultimately, what works are adequate social security floors (basic social security guarantees) and rights-based “food sovereignty” approaches that put communities in control of their own local food systems. For example, in India, the Deccan Development Society supports rural women by providing access to nutritious food and other community supports.

To address food insecurity, we must invest in diplomacy, coordinating humanitarian, development and peacekeeping activities to prevent and contain armed conflict. Poverty reduction is part of peacebuilding as rampant inequalities serve as a powder keg for aggression.

Protecting our ability to produce food

Climate change and poor environmental management have put the collective resources of food production, including soil, water and pollinators, at risk.

Several studies over the past 30 years have warned that soil and water pollution from high levels of toxins such as pesticides, declining biodiversity and the disappearance of pollinators could further affect the quality and quantity of food production.

Livestock, crop production, agricultural expansion and food processing are responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, a third of all food produced is lost or wasted, so combating this travesty is also of paramount importance.

Read more: How to generate clean energy from food waste

Reducing food loss and waste will help reduce the environmental impact of the food system, as will the transition to healthier, sustainably produced diets.

Nutrition, health and environmental sustainability

Food is an entitlement and should be treated as such, not as an issue of population growth or insufficient food production. Poverty and systemic inequalities are the main causes of food insecurity, as is armed conflict. It is important that this idea is central in discussions about feeding the world.

We need policies that support healthy and sustainably produced balanced diets to address chronic diet-related diseases, environmental challenges and climate change.

We need more initiatives that enable equitable distribution of land, water and income around the world.

We need policies that address food insecurity through initiatives such as rights-based food sovereignty systems.

In areas affected by conflict and war, we need policies that invest in diplomacy by coordinating humanitarian, development and peacekeeping activities.

These are the key ways to recognize that “Food is the most powerful lever for optimizing human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.”

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