Saturday, August 26, 2017

How to feed 9 Billion people?

How to feed 9 Billion people?

It is projected that there might be over 9 Billion people on the planet by 2050. The question is often asked: how will we feed them if we are already using up 1.3 earths? To answer this question, I want to focus on three ideas:  optimizing diet, reducing food waste, and eliminating carb addiction and over eating.

According to, the food wasted in rich countries is equivalent to the entire food production of sub-Saharan Africa. If half of this food is saved it would be sufficient to alleviate hunger in Africa even when accounting for population growth for the next 30 years. Countries like France have enacted laws that prohibit supermarkets from throwing away good produce. However, there is a long way to go when it comes to individual behavior. American culture is wasteful. It is not uncommon to see people (actors) throw away perfectly good food in commercials or TV shows. It is even very likely to see this in real life; I have seen a store in Seattle (PCC) throw away a two hour old pizza into the compost bin instead of donating it or giving it away to customers for free. What further contributes this problem is that a good number of Americans lack the meal planning skills to prevent food in their fridge from going bad. I have heard the sentiment that it is hard to cook for one person because it is wasteful. However, this is a copout. I have managed to have under 1% food waste rate, while cooking for one person, 5 years in a raw.  Forgive the rant here, but the point here is that reducing food waste in rich countries by 50% is very doable if habits and cultural values change.

The second avenue for feeding the growing population is reducing red meat consumption. I single out red meat because it takes up a lot agricultural land, is a major contributor to global warming, consumes large amounts of water for its production, and is a contributor to poor health. Red meat includes pork, lamb, and beef. Of those three beef is the largest offender. If beef consumption is reduced to half its current levels in the US, that would free up 4 times more resources that can go towards food production in general, or more specifically towards poultry production. Chickens, not only have a much higher feed conversion, and produce no methane, but also take a much shorter time to raise and use very little water. Imagine there were 3 times as many chickens to feed the world than there are today, wouldn’t this feed the extra 2 billion people who will be here in the next 30 years? The naysayers might consider this an unreasonable proposal, but the facts point to the opposite conclusion: red meat consumption has gone down over the last 20 years. Moreover, Italians eat half as much beef as Americans; if they can do it, Americans can do it. Finally, Americans do not know their history and assume that red meat eating at these levels is the way things have always been. However, meat eating was somewhat of a luxury until factory farming started. In fact, beef consumption was 50% lower in the later 30s than when it peaked in the 70s.

I am not naïve here and do realized that meat consumptions in the developing countries is on the rise too. If the developing countries follow the West in their diet change, then it would be disastrous for the world. Nevertheless, what I am proposing is not, no beef, or red meat, but instead red meat accounting for no more than 20% of the meat consumption. It means, that these countries would have to find a symbol of success other than eating red meat on a regular basis. They would have to challenge their own social norms, something easier said than done, given the all bombardment of advertising by McDonald and Burger King telling them that eating burgers will make them happy.

The third and final idea is related to reducing food consumption in the US, thereby freeing up resources that can go towards feeding the poor in the US and the growing world population in the next thirty years There are two aspects to this: 1) Americans eat 30% more calories than they need. 2) Related to # 1, Americans are addicted to carbs, thus they eat more than they need. For the first aspect, one solution might be forced portion control. I know this idea will not be popular because Americans do not like the government to tell them what to do, but imagine no bottomless mimosas, no bottomless buckets of popcorn, no 20oz coffee or soda cups. Again, people are ignorant of history, but a regular coffee was an 8-10oz coffee in the early 90s, then thanks to Starbucks, 12oz replaced 8oz as the standard. As for sugar addiction, I remember when I used to be on a low fat diet, eating white pasta and bread, and putting three spoons of sugar in my coffee. I was hungry all the time and used to eat almost twice much as I do today. Once I got rid of the sugar and refined carbs, my constant hunger was gone. Imagine if every American got rid of the bad carbs, they would need to eat way less.

       It might be that these ideas do not fully answer how to feed the extra two billion people, but they do get us half of the way there.  Moreover, they require very little in the way of financial investment or technology. Instead, they reply on humans making very different choices than the ones they are making today. Of course, we all want a technological fix that does not require us to change our habits and cultural values, however, given the failure of innovation after innovation (read GMOs and glyphosate possibly being cancerous), it might be the case that changing values and habits might be our only choice. 

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