Humanosphere is on hiatus. Many thanks to our web design, development and hosting partner Culture Foundry for keeping the site active while we plan our next move. Culture Foundry builds, evolves and supports next-level websites and applications for clients you know, and you couldn’t ask for a better partner to help you thrive in digital. If you’re considering an ambitious website design or development project, we encourage you to make them your very first call.

Are there trade-offs in feeding the world?


A world-wide hunger problem with a continuing growing population means that food is increasingly important.

Some 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger. That means one out of every eight people is food insecure.

More than 7 billion people are on the planet today. The additional population (roughly 10 billion by 2015), will largely come from low and middle-income countries where food security is greater issue.

In short, we will need more and better food. The future of farms is coming under increasing scrutiny.

“Already, the world’s farms take up an area the size of South America. By 2050, a global population of nearly 10 billion people will require roughly 70 percent more food. We have two options: Either we need to get more food out of the land we already farm, or we need to farm more land,” said Stephen Porder, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, in the New York Times last week.

There are trade-offs in decisions made going forward. Sustainability, a oft-used development buzzword, is far more complicated than it sounds.

Small-scale farms that use more natural inputs are environmentally sustainable by doing less damage to the planet. Large scale farms, argues Porder, have the advantage of producing more calorie-rich food on less land.

Remember options one and two: To feed a growing population we will need to either farm more land, or to get more food out of the land we farm. Either option will need to be coupled with efforts to reduce food waste and to feed fewer crops to animals.

The UN’s Environment Programme estimates that one-third of the food produced for human consumption are lost or wasted each year. The US throws away 30% of all food. More efficient supply chains in developing countries and better food management in places like the US will help change that.

Nevertheless, farming is a major component of ensuring a world where no person goes hungry. Researcher Marc Bellemare of the University of Minnesota applauded Porder for making the economics argument that economists fail to communicate.

[T]he unpleasant job of pointing out trade-offs is usually left to economists…It is a great weakness of the other side of the feeding-the-world debate that many cannot — or perhaps don’t want to, because it makes them popular with the bien-pensant whose preferences are the stuff book sales and page views are made of — recognize those trade-offs.

The case is by no means open and shut. Beyond land use itself, there is good reason to be worried about how it is acquired. Families and individual farmers often farm land without titles to their properties, making it much easier for the land to be taken away.

Increasing productivity and food availability can reduce hunger in areas with widespread poverty, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The body estimates that the biggest gains can come from small-holder farmers which could spur on development.

Making significant long term gains remain the question that many are trying to answer.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]