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Can food production keep up with population growth?

Published on May 18, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on June 15, 2012 8:30AM

Frank Priestley

Frank Priestley


For the Capital Press

An article by Reuters News Service recently posed the question, "Can we feed 9 billion people?"

It's an important question to consider, and there are major differences among academic experts on the best methods of increasing production of food to meet global demand.

By 2050, 70 percent of the earth's civilization will live in cities and the global population will reach 9 billion, up from the current 7 billion. The discussion about how we will feed that many people is diverse and important, but also misunderstood, which the Reuters article makes clear.

Academics from around the world suggest that up to 30 percent of the current world food supply is either thrown away, eaten by pests or spoils on its way to market. Lack of infrastructure to transport food to market is a serious problem in many parts of the world. Rising energy costs add to the problem and in order to transport food to people who need it, efficient systems are critical.

In the food processing sector, some methods that create efficiency are being taken away. For example the recent controversy over lean finely textured beef or "pink slime," as it has been referred to by the media, has reduced the amount of ground beef available and increased the price. In this instance we had a proven, safe, regulated process in use since 2004, that no longer exists due to hype created by the media and others who either don't understand, or perhaps don't care, that increasing grocery bills means going without to some families.

The experts quoted in the article suggested that people who live in apartment buildings could grow vegetables in pots on their porches, that people should eat less meat and dairy products, and that governments should spend less on farm subsidies. They also suggested a global ban on biofuel subsidies.

The main problem we see with all of these arguments is that while we all can and should work to end hunger, one country can't force its sovereignty onto another. During and after World War II a lot of Europeans went hungry. Since then those governments have enacted subsidies and other farm supports to ensure a steady food supply. Countries that don't do the same leave their farms vulnerable, not competitive in the global market, and in competition with foreign governments. This is one of the reasons we see so little progress in World Trade Organization negotiations.

One of the biggest misunderstandings in this discussion lies behind the assertion that if we eat less meat and dairy products it reduces demand for grain and somehow keeps people from going hungry. This incredibly flawed argument assumes that if demand for grain drops farmers will convert that acreage to vegetables. What doesn't make sense is that in the U.S. at least, we don't have a shortage of vegetables and growing less grain will have no impact on that fact.

Many people don't understand that overproduction of perishable crops often leads to falling prices and, in some cases, bankrupt farms. Arguably the most critical factor in fighting hunger is the ability to maintain profitable farms. Our nation is blessed with an abundance of good farmland and skilled producers, but many countries are not.

As long as we can protect our farms from overzealous regulations, burdensome taxes and dubious attempts to frighten consumers, those farms can and will be passed along to the next generation and the production of food will keep up with the demands of a growing population.

Finding creative and innovative methods of purchasing and transporting U.S.-produced farm commodities around the globe to meet the demand of less fortunate people will remain a challenge, as will helping people in those countries produce their own food.

Frank Priestley is president of the Idaho Farm Bureau.


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