Food and Guilt – questions about some extraordinary claims

There is a lot of stuff one hears about food, sustainability, environment, etc., and it is sometimes hard to figure out what is true and what is not, what is based on science and what is emotion-based mythology.
For instance, some things I have heard over the years and have no means to evaluate if they are even close to plausible:
Claim #1: if we used every square inch of arable or potentially arable land, clearing the rainforest, turning deserts into fields, removing cities, malls and highways, killing all the animals, destroying all natural ecosystems, moving all humans to the Moon and planting all of the Earth’s landmass (except, perhaps Antarctica and Mt.Everest), there would still not be enough grain, fruits and vegetables to feed the entire current human population. True or False? Source?
Claim #2: if we used all the available technology to maximize the production of fish, shellfish, sea-weed, etc., the entire production on the oceans would still not be able to feed the entire current human population. True or False? Source?
Claim #3: if all of the suitable (and unsuitable but convertable, e.g,. cities, deserts) land was converted into small farms where chickens really freely roam and peck around the yard, there would not be enough chicken meat to feed the entire current human population. True or False? Source?
I guess if any or all of those are even close to true, the idea is that we have to trade-off and compromise: we cannot eat just plants, or just seafood, or just free-range chicken, but have to combine all (plus farm-raised animals of several species raised as humanely as possible, plus a little bit of game meat) of these in some way that can feed all of us without destroying the environment.
So, anyone know any answers, or at even educated guesses as to the veracity of any of the three above claims?

12 responses to “Food and Guilt – questions about some extraordinary claims

  1. False.
    False.
    False.
    We can and are producing enough food for all the humans on the planet. It is not getting to them because of politics, economics, and other factors, but not because there isn’t enough food. I’ll hunt for some sources to back that up.

  2. Thanks. What I suspected. But I would still like to know more details…

  3. My immediate response is what John said, but like Bora I wish I had data to back it up. Looking forward to John’s followup.

  4. Yes, I want to have a ready response and, if possible, citation, when I hear one of those next time. The claim #3 I heard from a person who is deemed respectable in his scientific field, but also a friend of the poultry industry, so it is of special interest to me – it also appears the most likely to be close to plausible of the three claims.

  5. How did #1 get past the sniff test? It has to be patently false, otherwise there wouldn’t be enough to feed all the people that exist now. Animal protein sources need far more calories to grow the meat from grain [SLoT] than can be obtained by eating the grain alone. The factor IIRC is about 10 kg grain makes 1 kg of cow, while chickens and pigs are more efficient, 3-4 kg grain into 1 kg meat animal. Exotherms [catfish & tilapia] are somewhat more efficient than that. The truth is more like 2+ billion more people could be fed if all the grain fed to animals was fed to people [and food distribution was better]. Without using any more land. We could still have a smaller meat industry using grasslands unsuitable for grain farming.

  6. All no. I’ll look for some references as well. IMO our current practice of producing most food in monocultural ways limits the amount of food we can produce. Diverse sustainable farming requires a lot of manual labor but the amount of food that can be grown on an acre this way is immense.

  7. I believe those were all just propaganda rumours started by the Soylent Corporation. 😉

  8. Count me in on the “No^3”. Claims like those are bothersome, especially when they have a “pro-industrial food” message riding on the coattails to frame industrialization of food with upholding human rights.
    The big question is not whether we can feed the world’s population today, but whether people will be able to grow and eat food tomorrow without being wholly reliant upon monocultures and industrialized food production.

  9. E.O. Wilson, in the “Future of Life” claims as follows: “We already appropriate 40 per cent of the planet’s organic matter produced by green plants. If everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land (3.5 billion acres) would support about 10 billion people. If humans utilized as food all of the energy captured by plant photosynthesis on land and sea – some 40 trillion watts – the planet could support about 17 billion people.” I am not sure if this is accurate, and if I recall correctly, Wilson does not provide references for this in his book.
    If true, this pretty much refutes your Claim #1 above, although it looks suspiciously like something that could have morphed into Claim #1, if enough people “mis-remembered” what Wilson said (as Rocket Roger would put it…). Also, if correct, it does put some parameters around absolute theoretical carrying capacity (assuming it was even possible with the loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services, etc.)… and where we might currently be situated…

  10. Sorry I took so long.
    None of the major famine relief organizations claims that there is not enough food in the world.
    In the early eighties Food First put together a list of twelve myths about hunger that has been widely reprinted and updated ever since. Number one on the list is “Not Enough Food to Go Around.” According to Food First (http://www.foodfirst.org/pubs/backgrdrs/1998/s98v5n3.html):

    Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world’s food supply. Enough wheat, rice and other grains are produced to provide every human being with 3,500 calories a day. That doesn’t even count many other commonly eaten foods – vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. Enough food is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day worldwide: two and half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs-enough to make most people fat! The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food.

    Another version appears on the site of to the Rehydration Project (http://rehydrate.org/facts/hunger.htm):

    Measured globally, there is enough to feed everyone. For example there is enough grain being produced today to provide everybody in the world with enough protein and about 3000 calories a day, which is what the average American consumes.
    But the world’s food supply is not evenly distributed. Those who have much accumulate more, while those who have little edge toward starvation. In most countries with widespread hunger, a few large landowners control nearly all agricultural production sometimes with disastrous results. Much rich farmland remains unused, or one harvest is gathered per year when there could be two or three. Land is used for “cash crops” such as cotton or coffee instead of food. To the owners, land becomes an “investment” not a source of food for the people who live on it.

    Joel E. Cohen’s 1995 book How Many People can the Earth Support looks at the history of attempting to estimate the world’s carrying capacity since before Malthus. In Appendix 3 he summarizes 66 different estimates dating from 1679 to 1994. The summaries are very revealing of the assumptions that go into attempting such an estimate.
    Those at the high end, assume large parts of the land surface of the earth can be converted to high yield grain production; that there will be enough water, fertilizer, and energy (animal or machine) to make every arable acre of land produce at the highest level possible. These estimates usually say we can support the present number people (at the time the author wrote) two to twenty fold.
    The low end estimates assume there will not be enough water, fertilizer, and energy and that the amount of arable land will significantly decrease through building over, erosion, and bad management. These estimates usually say we are already beyond the earth’s ideal carrying capacity.
    The most in-depth estimates go into a great deal of detail about their assumptions and present high and low ranges. With the low estimate asking “how many people can the world support like Americans” and the high asking “how many people can the world support in good health.” They also go into detail about the various trade-offs in environment, luxury, and economic freedom. Finally, some look at what sort of structural changes must be made to achieve the conditions where we do support as many as we can support. The answer takes up Cohen’s entire book and several other shelves of literature.
    The bottom line is than most of the people most intimate with the problem of hunger do not think the world is anywhere close to not having enough to food to feed the present population. They often point out that the countries that have the most hunger often have economies based on exporting agricultural products to the first world. If even a tiny part of their economies were redirected to the production of food staples for their own people, they would be self-sufficient. In the first edition of the Food First myths list (1986) they estimated that a redirection of just two percent of the agriculture of Indonesia would be enough to wipe out hunger in that country.
    The problem of world hunger is not one of there not being enough food, but of the classic social issues of development: land ownership, economic empowerment of women, education, public health, political corruption, social peace, a lack of meaningful democracy, and meddling by global powers.
    PS – I have been involved in this off an on for over thirty years, so it’s hard for me not to vomit out an entire dissertation on the causes of global hunger including an angry diatribe on colonial and neo-colonial exploitation and the lost opportunities of the Cold War.
    PPS – I’m really not that much of an expert on chickens.

  11. Thank you, John, that is very thorough and answers all my questions!