Feeding the world – less is more?

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Feeding the world – less is more?

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I've handed the reins of my blog over to Mark Avery for most of June. Mark's sharing the successes and challenges of saving nature around the world in the run up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

Most of us don’t have much to do with food production although if we are lucky enough to have gardens we may grow a few vegetables or fruit, but all of us eat. Food for us is something that we buy, and the shelves are always full, despite the rapid increase in the human population of the planet.

My father was born in 1920 and the human population had not then reached 2 billion. My birth, in 1958, helped us reach 3 billion in 1960. This year we number more than 7 billion - that’s an awful lot more mouths to feed and to some extent we have managed to feed them, although hunger and starvation are growing.

When you look at the Earth’s land surface, just over a third of it is given over to food production (growing crops or grazing livestock), around another third is forests and a third third comprises deserts (hot ones like the Sahara and cold ones like Antarctica). That’s the planet on which we live. 

Assuming that deserts won’t produce much food whatever we do, then if we need to produce more food on land then this will have to come from increasing food production on the land where we already grow our food or chopping down some more forests to grow more food.  Either prospect makes me fear for wildlife as I’ve seen farmland wildlife decline enormously in the fields near where I live and we know that rainforest destruction is pushing thousands of species towards extinction. 

One thing is sure, in a hungry world, the last thing we need to do is encourage large areas of productive land, currently producing food, to be used for biofuel production.

Most of the planet is covered by oceans. Perhaps a much better harvesting, a more sustainable harvesting, of the food production power of the oceans would lessen the pressures on land use. Reducing overfishing so that maximum sustainable yields can be achieved would provide much more food for a hungry world.

Others claim that technology might help us - perhaps genetically modified crops could increase food production in environmentally friendly ways and increase the productivity of areas already used for food production.

However, maybe the focus on increased production is wrong. Many say that we already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people which, if true, means that we are are dramatically overproducing food now and we could start turning some of that agricultural land back into rainforests right away – if only everyone on earth got their fair share of food.  According to this way of looking at things, the reason that millions starve in a world of plenty is poor food distribution rather than poor food production. We waste an awful lot of food. In the so-called developed world we over-eat and throw away perfectly good food whereas in the developing world poor food storage facilities mean that much food goes to waste. 

Some claim that a move to eating less meat, not necessarily a vegetarian diet, would make current food production stretch to more human mouths. Did you know that c40% of cereal production is fed to cattle?

It’s certainly not all about production, even if food producers tell you that it is. Lowering waste is always the place to start whether it be in meeting demands for energy, water or food. Sustainable consumption must go hand in hand with sustainable production in a sustainable future. I wonder how much progress will be made in Rio this month?

The funding that supports environmentally friendly farming across the EU is under threat. If proposed reductions go ahead farmers in the UK will find it more difficult to farm in ways that benefit wildlife. As 70% of the UK's land is farmed, any such change could have serious consequences. Urge your MEP to step up for wildlife today.

Dr Mark Avery is a former Conservation Director of the RSPB and now is a writer on environmental matters. We’ve asked Mark to write these 20 essays on the run up to the Rio+20 conference.  His views are not necessarily those of the RSPB.  Mark writes a daily blog about UK nature conservation issues.

  • Sooty - I agree. Waste is always the first place to start - in energy, water or food.  And food waste can be eating too much, eating too much of the wrong type of food or simply throwing away perfectly good food.  Waste is where we should start.

  • Well I often think you have most of the answers Mark and not being frivolous there.Everything you say here makes sense but the problem is that in general as the standard of living rises then more demand for meat comes with that and also more food gets thrown away because people can afford to throw it away plus think also best before dates shorten as well.Some of these best before dates are nonsense such as we bought some cheese the other day but when we looked the B B D was very short time,now how ridiculous is that when most good Cheddars would be matured for say at least 6 months.Often think they are unnecessary as there must be lots of generations managed without them and for certain not around in my youth.