Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 7. Feeding Everyone Well: A Status Report

As noted, 1.1 billion people are undernourished and underweight. The meshing of this number with a World Bank estimate of 1.3 billion living in poverty, defined as those living on $1 a day or less, comes as no surprise. Poverty and hunger go hand in hand.5 

Gains in eradicating hunger in East Asia and Latin America leave most of those who are still hungry concentrated in the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. In these regions, most of the hungry live in the countryside. The World Bank reports that 72 percent of the world's 1.3 billion poor live in rural areas. Most of them are undernourished, sentenced to a short life. These rural poor usually live not on the productive irrigated plains but on the semiarid/arid fringes of agriculture or in the upper reaches of watersheds on highly erodible, steeply sloped land. Eradicating hunger depends on stabilizing these fragile ecosystems.6 

Demographically, most of the world's poor live in countries with rapidly growing populations, where poverty and population growth are reinforcing each other. The Indian subcontinent, for example, is adding 21 million people a year, the equivalent of another Australia. By mid-century, the population of this regionalready the hungriest on earthis expected to include another 900 million people.7 

No single factor bears so directly on the prospect of eradicating hunger in this region as population growth. In rural societies, when a farm passes from one generation to the next, it is typically subdivided among the children. With the second generation of rapid population growth and subsequent land fragmentation, farms are shrinking to the point where they can no longer support the people living on them. 

Between 1970 and 1990, the number of farms in India with less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land increased from 49 million to 82 million. Assuming that this trend has continued since then, India now has more than 90 million farms of less than 2 hectares. If each family has six members, then 540 million peopleover half of India's populationare trapped in a precarious balance with the land.8 

In Bangladesh, average farm size has already fallen below 1 hectare. According to one study, Bangladesh's "strong tradition of bequeathing land in fixed proportions to all male and female heirs has led to increasing landlessness and extreme fragmentation of agricultural holdings." In addition to the millions who are now landless, millions more have plots so small that they are effectively landless.9 

Africa, with the world's fastest population growth, is facing a similar reduction in cropland per person. For example, as Nigeria's population goes from 114 million today to a projected 278 million in 2050, its per capita grainlandmost of it semiarid and unirrigatedwill shrink from 0.15 hectares to 0.06 hectares. Nigeria's food prospect, if it stays on this population trajectory, is not promising.10 

Further complicating efforts to expand food production are water shortages. As noted earlier, almost all of the 3.2 billion people to be added to world population in the next 50 years will be born in countries already facing water shortages, such as India, Pakistan, and those in the Middle East and semiarid Africa. In India, water tables are already falling in large areas as demand exceeds the sustainable yield of aquifers. For many countries facing water scarcity, trying to eradicate hunger while population continues to grow rapidly is like trying to walk up a down escalator.11 

Even as the world faces the prospect of adding 80 million people a year over the next two decades, expanding food production is becoming more difficult. In each of the three food systemscroplands, rangelands, and oceanic fisheriesoutput expanded dramatically during most of the twentieth century's last half. Now this is changing. 

Between 1950 and 2000, as noted earlier, world production of grain nearly tripled. Production per person climbed nearly 40 percent as growth in the grain harvest outstripped that of population. The rising tide of grain production improved nutrition for much of humanity, but after 1984 growth in production slowed, falling behind that of population. By 2000, production per person had dropped 11 percent from the peak. (See Table 7-1.) The decline is concentrated in Africa, where rapid population growth has simply outrun grain production, and in the former Soviet Union, where the economy has shrunk by half since 1990 and living standards have deteriorated.12 

Roughly 1.2 billion tons of the world grain harvest are consumed directly as food, with most of the remaining 635 million tons (36 percent) consumed indirectly in livestock, poultry, and aquacultural products. The share of total grain used for feed varies widely among the "big three" food producersranging from a low of 4 percent in India to 25 percent in China and 65 percent in the United States.13 

Over the last half-century, the soaring world demand for animal protein was satisfied largely by expanding the output of meat from rangelands and of seafood from oceanic fisheries. World production of beef and mutton increased from 24 million tons in 1950 to 65 million tons in 2000, a near tripling. Most of the growth, however, occurred from 1950 to 1972, when output went up 44 percent. Since 1972, beef and mutton production per person has fallen by 15 percent.14 

An estimated four fifths of the beef and mutton produced worldwide in 2000, roughly 52 million tons, comes from animals that forage on rangelands. With the world's rangelands now being grazed at or beyond capacity, future gains in output will likely be limited.15 

The growth in the oceanic fish catch exceeded even that of beef and mutton, climbing from 19 million tons in 1950 to 86 million tons in 1998, the last year for which data are available. This fourfold growth was also concentrated in 1950-88, a time during which the annual growth in the catchat 3.8 percentwas easily double that of world population. As a result, the oceanic fish catch per person climbed from 8 kilograms in 1950 to 17 kilograms in 1988. Since then, it has fallen by some 17 percent. The new reality is that fishers and ranchers can no longer satisfy much of the growing demand for food. For the first time since civilization began, farmers must try to meet future food needs on their own.16


Table 7-1. World Production Per Person of Grain, Beef and Mutton, and Seafood, 1950-2000
Growth Period
Decline Period
+ 38
Beef and Mutton
+ 44
Source: See endnote 12.


*Data and additional resources have been omitted from this mobile version of our website to ensure the most optimal experience. To view this page with its entire information, please visit the full website.