The Food Paradox: Scarcity vs Waste

IMG_20131230_212906(Leggi la versione in italiano qui)

Christmas Holidays are a good opportunity to stop, reflect and reason about food reality, as it displays on our table and around the world. Here in Italy, most families are used to celebrate preparing immense amounts of dishes, large parts of which will inevitably be thrown away. At the same time, Caritas centres (Catholic venues that offer beds and meals for free or at extremely affordable prices)  are getting increasingly crowded  – not only by immigrants, but also by new Italian poor, who in the last four years have doubled, now amounting (in absolute terms) to 8 per cent of the population, while relative poverty hits 15,8 per cent of Italians and puts 30 per cent of them at risk of social exclusion.

Italians are apparently swallowing less proteins, while more and more families face relative deprivation. But food waste is the dark side of the coin, in a country which, regardless of its industrial and financial decline, remains one of the richest in the world. There are national organizations, like Banco Alimentare, who recover expiring food from supermarkets and redistribute it, but it’s clear that the problem must be addressed on a much larger scale. Recently, the Pope utilized his “spiritual” leverage to spur the masses to not throw away food that could serve to feed many of those in need. To do this, he urged people to collaborate with humanitarian organizations and expand the same basic concept worldwide, as a “therapy against indifference”.

The latest edition of the World Bank’s Atlas of Global Development, provides a broader view of this stark contrast, where it states that, during the last decades, the world’s food supply has expanded faster than its population, but increasing consumption in middle- and high-income economies and industrial demand for agricultural outputs have led to higher prices and local shortages. One billion people lack adequate nutrition to meet their daily needs – a situation that climate change could make worse.

In recent years, the world has had difficulty producing enough food to feed all at affordable prices. Inadequate calorie intake and diets that do not supply vital nutrients take a pervasive toll on early childhood development, impairing children’s cognitive development and adversely affecting health and productivity.

The demand for agricultural outputs will continue to grow because of population growth, rising incomes, changes in dietary preferences, and industrial demand for commodities such as maize and oilseeds. By 2050, there will be 9 billion people living on Earth, almost 2 billion more than today. Most will live in cities, but all will depend on agricultural areas around the world to feed them.

On a macro level, meeting the growing demand for food requires producing more food and moving it, often across borders, from surplus to deficit areas. Improving the quality of life of those who produce it requires a continuously increasing productivity and sustainable use of land. In recent decades, about two-thirds of growth of the world agricultural output has come from higher agricultural productivity and only one-third from the expansion of agricultural land. Agricultural output has grown more rapidly than population, but so has the demand for agricultural products. For the past 50 years, production in the developing regions of Asia and South America has grown even faster, around 2 percent a year. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, with some the highest rates of undernourishment, food production has barely kept pace with population increase, and it remains expensive to import food from Latin America, Eastern Europe and other surplus regions.

Producing more affordable food entails more efficient use of the agricultural inputs. Intensified cultivation through the use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and new plant
varieties can make limited land more productive. Such practices, however, may also cause further environmental degradation. Moreover, agricultural inputs are becoming
costlier along with rising crude oil prices. The effects of climate change that causes more frequent droughts and floods as well as more erratic weather patterns represent another challenge to efforts to raise agricultural productivity.
Many poor farmers subsist on fragile lands, not always well suited to intensive farming. Even on lands suitable for intensive farming practices, the farmers often lack fertilizers, farm equipment, irrigation systems, and high-yielding plant varieties and are poorly linked to markets for their produce. Overgrazing, deforestation, improper crop rotation, and poor soil and water management contribute to land degradation. The degradation of land reduces its productivity, encouraging growing populations to move on to new and poorer land, converting forests and fragile, semiarid areas into low productivity cultivated areas.
Sustainable production methods, based on environmentally sound practices, along with the development of more efficient markets for farm inputs and outputs and off-farm activities,
are the keys to improving rural livelihoods and expanding the global food supply. Such issues are being introduced with much vigor into the ongoing discussion on the post-2015 development agenda set by the United Nations, and are part of proposed goals and targets on nutrition.

Going back to the inequality in food distribution, it’s interesting to take a look at how calories’ consumption varies around the world, along with the percentage of income spent on food and the rate of underweight. There is an overwhelming contrast with the heavy incidence of obesity and that kind of diseases in the industrialized world.

Is that all? Of course not. It could be argued that the imbalances in food distribution are just one part of the consumption dilemma, as nowadays a Westerner consumes ten times more than a citizen from the rest of the world. The equilibrium is already shifting, and it should be considered along with the differences in the distribution of income, but that’s another story…

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