Feeding a world of 9 billion

Today the development agency Oxfam launches a global campaign against food insecurity, focusing on the challenge of feeding everyone on the planet in an era of increasing resource scarcity. After some progress over recent decades, food price spikes have been increasing the number of hungry people – to just under 1 billion today, a global scandal which has received too little attention from governments and campaign groups alike.

The new ‘GROW’ campaign comes with a headline-grabbing report warning of food price rises in key staples by between 120 and 180 percent by 2030, harming the poor and hampering attempts to decrease malnutrition overall. This may or may not be true – but the real point of the new campaign is to change the outcome rather than predict it. With this in mind, the Growing for a Better Future report (PDF 3.2MB) represents a welcome shift in the NGO rhetoric in a more realistic – and more environmentally-focused – direction.

Take this paragraph, buried at the very end on page 52:

The romanticization of ‘the peasant’ and rejection of new technologies and trade have the potential to lock farmers into poverty. International trade and new technologies are not magic bullets, but each has a major contribution to make, one which can be increased massively if governments direct them towards delivering public goods.

I can’t imagine finding this in a development agency report of yesteryear. The Oxfam report represents a welcome move away from the organic/small-scale-is-always-best rhetoric of the past which has polarised the food debate and set back the cause of tackling world hunger. Instead, the report recognises that more chemical inputs – especially fertilisers – are essential to raise the productivity of smallholder subsistence farming across Africa, which surely holds the key to reducing malnutrition amongst the world’s most vulnerable.

The report almost – but not quite – endorses GMOs, even. The closest we get is this, on page 54:

Farmers living in poverty do not grind out their existence using primitive technologies and outdated practices as a preferred option, rather because appropriate technologies for small producers have not been a priority for government or the private sector. For example, genetically engineered crop varieties developed overwhelmingly for large-scale industrial farms have failed to deliver for poor farmers, and have failed to make a significant contribution to tackling hunger, poverty or development.

It is true that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM soya and other herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant crops have little to offer farmers working in low-input conditions in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. But it does not a priori rule out the benefits of GM technology where these are specifically aimed at drought tolerance, nutritional enhancement or other traits which might be developed by public sector agencies (and therefore sold without patents) with the specific needs of subsistence farmers in mind. Might we dare to look forward to a campaign demanding a faster development of pro-poor GMOs? I certainly hope so.

Whilst there is little doubt that genetic improvements hold the highest potential for increasing yields overall in a world where the benefits of the ‘green revolution’ are beginning to tail off, there is much that can be done in the meantime. Some insane policies – like biofuels mandates in the EU and United States – should simply be scrapped, and any money saved recyled into agricultural development. Even if it is simplistic to blame recent food price increases solely or even mainly on biofuels, it is surely immoral to feed wheat and corn into car engines when so many people are going hungry.

There is a lot of politically-correct stuff in the report which I feel I have seen a thousand times before, and much of it feels like it has been written by committee (which it no doubt has). There are some rather strange high-blown rhetorical flourishes which do little to crystallise the central message, such as the following:

The broken food system is exacerbating the very drivers of fragility that make it vulnerable to shocks. It is locked in a dance of death with the age of crisis it helped to create.

Anyway. What I find most intriguing is the creeping in of ecological language into the standard development narrative. There is lots in there about climate change, but this is now de rigeur in reports of this type. Much more interesting is the mention of ‘planetary boundaries’, the subject of much recent scientific research and also of my upcoming book. The report states that “we must produce enough nourishing food for nine billion people by 2050 while remaining within planetary boundaries”, and mentions ecological and resource limits – namely climate, land, water, biodiversity and nitrogen – elsewhere too. These limits are not defined, but the fact that they are now considered central by Oxfam surely marks a major step forward.

How the new GROW campaign evolves remains to be seen. Let’s hope that it can stay away from platitudes about how bad big companies are and focus in on some key areas – like reducing subsidies in rich countries, increasing productivity in the poor world, and staying within those aforementioned ‘planetary boundaries’. Over 900 million people will go to bed hungry tonight – let us all focus on getting that appalling number down, and quickly.


  1. Wayne

    I believe we should be addressing the obvious problem of human over population, not trying to squeeze more and more out of nature. Our arrogance knows no bounds.

    1. Aaron

      Over-population is obviously a problem and yet the best way to deal with that problem is precisely what Oxfam and other development agencies are advocating. we cant go round telling people how many children they can have, it has been tragic in China for example, nor can we forcibly sterilise millions of women. Instead if we raise people out of povety and educate women whilst giving them stronger rights and freedoms, we find the population growth slows down dramatically as it has done in Europe and Nth America where these liberties are in place (even if they are insufficient).

  2. Norman Pagett

    Food supply is as subject to the Jevons paradox as any other form of energy. The more that is produced, the more will be consumed, provided that cost allows it. It happens through increasingly varied diet (China is the perfect example), or by the support of a growing population. Humanity is collectively incapable of doing otherwise. The consumption problem will not corrected until population numbers reduce

  3. Pingback: Is the Future of Food Medieval? « Tangerine and Cinnamon

  4. Robin Smith

    The same thing was said by the good Reverend Thomas Malthus 200 odd years ago. It helped explain the Irish potato famine to the rent seeking landowners of the time. And was very convenient too for them. It suited them perfectly. Nature could not support a growing population. The logic all seemed perfect. Except there was a rather big problem with the presumption. Because high quality food was being carted for export past piles of dead bodies. There was no shortage of food. It was being used to pay tribute to absentee landlords in England.

    This story comes up again and again across history. It gains the support of highly respected authority. But is false. Now it is Mark Lynas. There has never been a time in history where the population outran nature. Only injustice has robbed people of a living.

    We are not running out of anything. It is simply that a few, by the laws we vote for, are able to hold these resources out of use. It used to be the landlords of old. Now it is the big 21st century land owners. Banks and monopoly corporations starving the world. Most of their incomes are from economic rents, not production of wealth.

    Proof? See this chart. It shows that no matter how good society is at producing more, all the gain goes to the non producing land owner. In higher rents.


    My hope is Mr Lynas will stop for a moment and think very carefully about this indeed. The good Reverend is today considered one of the worlds worst economists to have lived.

  5. Mike Small

    I think your mis-representing their views Mark. When you quote ‘International trade and new technologies are not magic bullets, but each has a major contribution to make, one which can be increased massively if governments direct them towards delivering public goods’ – it’s not clear what is meant by ‘new technologies’.

    It’s quite a leap to suggest that’s an endorsement of GMOs.

  6. MIke Haseler

    Arghhh! Another article I feel compelled to comment on.

    If the world needs to cut down on fossil fuel then there are clearly two ways to do this:

    1. To cut down the fossil fuel consumption per head, leading to a corresponding decrease in GDP per head (GDP and energy appear to be correlated – and I doubt any renewables actually contribute energy if all the energy costs are taken into account – they just consume fossil fuel in manufacture etc. and turn it into acceptable “green” energy)

    2. To cut down the number of people. and leave energy/person as it is.

    So, how come whenever the need to reduce fossil fuel use is being considered, is it the “male” things like driving cars, which are attacked, and the “female” things like having babies are not. OK, there’s a heap load of sexism there …. and in our present society, us men are not allowed to be sexist (unlike women) … but not having a womb, I think I can rightly claim that I’m less interested in childbearing children than most women.

    So, why doesn’t anyone suggest reducing population levels to combat “global warming”? I may be mistaken, but I’m growing increasingly convinced that there is an anti-male agenda behind this global warming campaign. Men like things that use a lot of fossil fuel … some women do as well, and some men are more interested in babies than some women.

    But when THE ONLY SOLUTION to cut down fossil fuel use is to make us all fossil fuel more, rather than to have less people to share it out between.

    After all, not having children, means that they will have more fossil fuel for each of them AND it means that none of us today need loose out anything except for those who want large families.

    So, if sacrifices have to be made, why is it that men have to stop driving their SUV (I ride a bike) rather than women have to cut down on the number of children they have?

    Which begins to make we wonder, whether the reason women have children is so that men can kill them all off in the next war?

  7. William


    “Instead if we raise people out of povety and educate women whilst giving them stronger rights and freedoms, we find the population growth slows down dramatically”

    That’s 100% correct. The oft-cited “girl effect” has significant and positive effects, including not only reducing population growth rates through educated self-determination (rather than through force or incentives), but also by improving the mean quality of life for virtually everyone in the communities where it has taken place.

  8. Slim Pickings

    The old canard about feeding the world. This represents a classic example of a Cartesian externalisation of issues – it cannot be a human issue therefore there must be something else causing the problem – the landscape, techniques etc.

    Referring to the following documents you will see that we could feed 9 billion people, in the short-term and using present techniques. Use google to find these references – the former two are freely available and you can also see reviews of the Smil book: 

    Godfray, H.C.J., et al. Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Science 327, 812 (2010).

    Lundqvist, J., C. de Fraiture and D. Molden. Saving Water: From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain. SIWI Policy Brief. SIWI, (2008).

    Smil, V. 2000. Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

    Simple answers to complex questions are usually wrong. Briefly, however, the problems are not in the field or in the ecosystem, they are in the human continuum of: geo-politics, on and off-farm production and supply chain inefficiency, education, unsustainable markets (including protectionism/tariffs) and human wealth/consumption choices. The latter prompting the feeding 1700 calories per human per day to animals to produce protein and producing biofuels that feed no one.

    Globally, daily, farmers produce 4,600 calories per person. This is twice the alimentary product required to provide 2000+ calories per adult per day. 
So, broad brush, with some large-scale efficiency and educational changes we could feed the 9 billion.

    I wish there was a sexy answer to this question that shows off human ingenuity, intellect, responsibility and wisdom without using acronyms, furnishing research budgets, or creating even more unsustainable markets.

    Sadly, the very unsexy answer, I suggest, lies in taking responsibility for, and changing, ourselves – this is difficult and requires acknowledging that we are not as good/clever/smart/sensible/wise/all powerful as we think we are.

    Yes, I agree, use technology to improve the efficiency, supply and the storage issues. But let’s not blindly tap into the trite tat of thinking that we can really improve on nature through bio-engineering when it is actually unnecessary. And never forget that there are the many unanswered, and dangerous, questions with regard to GMOs: for example the pesky issue of epigenetics and how genes inter-relate over time in the environment, and the bio-synergisms of down-stream inter-species contamination.

    It all sounds sexy and containable in the lab and in journal articles – but for the farmer and biodiversity (who don’t have voices) it can be anything but that.

    It really boils down to education, responsibility and not profit. And profit, with its sidekick ego, is what really drives agro-industrials and their bio-engineers. They may, very nobly, wish to feed people but with every mouthful they would either like to make a sou or publish a paper!

  9. Liam Knapp

    ‘Globally, daily, farmers produce 4,600 calories per person. This is twice the alimentary product required to provide 2000+ calories per adult per day. 
So, broad brush, with some large-scale efficiency and educational changes we could feed the 9 billion.’

    Hi there Slim, where did you get these figures from please?

  10. Scott

    “Whilst there is little doubt that genetic improvements hold the highest potential for increasing yields overall in a world where the benefits of the ‘green revolution’ are beginning to tail off,”

    Oh Mark, there is more than just a little doubt. It isn’t even true. The last part of your statement proves it. In fact that “tailing off” will actually start dropping over time unless an even greater number of people wake up and start healing the land from all the damage caused by conventional “green revolution” agriculture.

    By far the highest potential for increasing yields is organic. Not the romanticized and idealized organic farmer that you spent so many years promoting, but real science based organic.

    There is a huge propaganda campaign to try and convince people to cling to conventional agriculture. Big bucks are involved. GMO’s are purported to be the new thing that will “save” a failing conventional model. It simply isn’t true, because no GMO solves the basic problem of soil quality. Sure it can devise ways to grow crops in ever increasingly poor soils, but in the end it is a downward cycle that ends in the total failure of the conventional “green revolution” model of agriculture.

    Already in places around the world science based organic agriculture is out producing conventional by 2-5 times or more per acre. And it is no fluke either. It is repeatable over and over again.

    Here is a quote from Michael Pollan discussing Joel Salatin & PolyFace Farms and his multi-species managed intensive rotational grazing system.

    “40,000 lbs. beef

    30,000 lbs. pork

    10,000 broilers

    1,200 turkeys

    1,000 rabbits

    35,000 doz. eggs

    off of 100 acres

    and at the end of the year

    there is more biodiversity, not less

    there is more fertility, not less

    there is more soil, not less.

    This is NOT a zero-sum system!”

    Joel likes to joke he is making so much money he has to hire someone just to take it to the bank! LOL

    The current world record for rice production isn’t some GMO hopped up and nitrogen flooded field somewhere run by a Monsanto development team. It isn’t even an advanced and distinguished agricultural university on a test plot. It is held by Sumant Kumar from Northern India by using a method called System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and yielded 22.4 tons per hectare. His 4 neighbors are using the same technique to yield similar results. What does the so called experts at the conventional “green revolution” model produce? 8 tons at best.

    Or what about Helen Atthowe at Biodesign farms in Montana? She is easily out producing conventional vegetable crops without a drop of nitrogen fertilizers. And not only does she out produce conventional but that production is higher quality with less culls and reaches market earlier too.

    The biggest problem with all your arguments relating to organic are now and always have been wrong, because you never took the time to understand organic except at the most superficial level. Organic is the science of raising crops while improving the soil and the eco system. Organic is not the same as “traditional”. The science of organic didn’t even start until the early 1940’s. It is called “organic” because humus is carbon and the science of carbon based chemistry is organic chemistry. The soil is the key, then the rest of the farming ecosystem flows from that foundation.

    What do all those examples I gave have in common? They all understand it is the soil that determines productivity, not some chemical or GMO.

    Now Mark, you call yourself an ecologist or ecological activist. I can’t for the life of me figure out how an ecologist could possibly even consider conventional methods as good for anything, since conventional farming destroys entire ecosystems and the soil.


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