Industries in Depth

Food: how much does the world need?

Tristram Stuart
Founder, Feedback
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Industries in Depth?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Agriculture, Food and Beverage is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Agriculture, Food and Beverage

The dominant paradigm of global food security is that humanity “needs” to increase food production by 50 to 100% by 2050. The consensus is that this is partly due to population growth, but mostly because this population is shifting towards more meat- and dairy-intensive diets.

But dramatically increasing total global food production isn’t the answer. To sustainably feed a planet of 9 billion, we must waste less food and curb per capita consumption of meat and dairy in those countries that already consume too much.

Total production isn’t the issue

Food waste in the developed world suggests there’s no guarantee that increasing global food production would eliminate world hunger. Food availability in rich countries in fact represents 150-200% of nutritional needs in calorific terms, as I discuss in my TED talk and book. If you include indirect calories – those fed to livestock that could have gone to people – the figure is 300% to 400%. We have bigger surpluses in rich countries than ever before.

Conjure up your archetypal image of the overfed Westerner next to trashcans filled with edible food that has been wasted. Now repeat: “What you need is more food.” Clearly the notion is obscene. If the word “need” can be applied here, the need is for a moderate level of consumption, with less waste, and less reliance on meat for protein. How did it come about that NGOs and international institutions have converged on such a twisted definition of the word “need”? It sounds more like the need of a global food system driven by the conversion of natural capital into cash rather than a demographic or nutritional necessity.

Let’s start this discussion with the trashcans. Food waste occurs at all stages of the supply chain.

At the farm level, food waste is created by strict cosmetic standards set by supermarkets and by last-minute order changes that unfairly offload onto farmers and suppliers the risk of unpredictable sales in the market. In developing countries, farm-level food waste is compounded by losses of food from poor storage, handling, and refrigeration. However, even in developing countries, food that is perfectly fit for human consumption ends up unsold as a result of the actions taken by those further up the supply chain – brokers, exporters, importers, retailers, and consumers. My own organisation, Feedback, has recently uncovered how, in Kenya, the policies of European supermarkets and their direct suppliers cause Kenyan smallholders to waste around 40% of what they grow for European markets – even in a country with millions of hungry people.

At the retail level of the food supply chain, American supermarkets lose between five and 10% of their food between goods-in and the till, according to data from the USDA. Part of the problem is that moderate levels of waste is often seen by managers as a sign that stores are successfully creating the image of cornucopian abundance that they believe consumers need to see. A hard-wired human response to glut is to take more: this is the marketing technique that results in us buying far more food than we’re going to eat, week after week. There are great opportunities for reduced waste by supermarkets; Oliver Wyman, in particular, has produced a series of incisive reports showing that smarter and leaner stock management can simultaneously reduce waste, save money, and improve customer satisfaction by increasing freshness.

There are many opportunities for averting waste in the consumption stage of the supply chain, too. In America, the USDA estimates that food lost in restaurants, institutional dining operations, and people’s homes totals 19% of total U.S. retail-level food supply, as food is prepared but not served, left to spoil in kitchens, and served in excessively large portions. Forward-thinking restaurants and caterers have already started managing portion sizes, implementing leaner stock ordering, and developing systems to precisely measure wastage and set goals to reduce it. And household behaviour is highly amenable to change; econometric modeling suggests that food waste awareness raising in the UK led to almost half of the 21% reduction in British household food waste since 2007.

After all, social values lie at the heart of behavior change. We must wake up to our role in the world’s food system: how we create it and how we, as social individuals, can change it. This is what Feedback has been doing since 2009 through its Feeding the 5000 events, holding massive public feasts using food that would have been otherwise wasted, with local partners promoting solutions that exist and amplifying public outcry about the causes of food waste. These events have now been replicated in 20 cities. It’s one of the things any country can do: propel a grassroots demand for change in the public consciousness of food consumption and food waste.

In addition to these lost opportunities to avert waste, we eat a good deal more than our nutritional needs. In most rich countries, we eat more, particularly more meat and dairy products, than is good for us or the planet, as manifested by the public health crisis associated with overconsumption.

Expanding food production involves enormous costs

Growing demand for meat and dairy products threatens to boost global food prices. This is the challenge that the desired increase in food production is meant to mitigate. Yet food price spikes are a signal to market participants of scarcity, and we ignore this signal at our peril. In fact, the costs of increasing food production are themselves terrific.

Emissions modelling suggests that agriculture-related emissions alone will take up almost 100% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050 (i.e. agricultural emissions alone trigger a 2°C global temperature increase). Meat and dairy production are especially carbon intensive, making livestock farming a key component of total agricultural emissions, pointing again towards the importance of diet and consumption mix as well as reducing food waste.

Closing yield gaps via agricultural intensification is often cited as a method to increase food supply without increasing food production’s environmental footprint. While per acre productivity yields did significantly increase during the second half of the 20th century, this rate of growth has now slowed, with increases of only about 1% per year.

So, the main method by which we are increasing food production is by increasing the amount of land under cultivation. This is the one way we really do risk not being able to feed the world. It means destroying the world’s remaining wild habitats, especially forests. Twelve to 20% of current CO2 emissions are from deforestation, and up to one third of historical CO2 emissions are from deforestation and land use change. Deforestation’s heavy carbon footprint contributes to agriculture’s responsibility for 30-35% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation also has dangerous ramifications for biodiversity loss. Already, in my lifetime, populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe have dropped 52%, according to WWF’s Living Planet Report 2014; the report cautions that deforestation trends point toward catastrophic and irreversible losses of biodiversity and runaway climate change. Empirical work shows that deforestation has a complicated but direct relationship with demand for food, particularly demand driven by urban population growth and exports of agricultural products.

Thus, increasing food production requires expanding the agricultural frontier, a process that destroys biodiversity, interrupts hydrological cycles, and surrenders humanity to severe climatic change. This will hamstring humanity’s ability to feed itself.

This is not to say that the increasingly affluent middle classes in India, China and elsewhere should be prohibited from increasing their meat and dairy consumption. Despite recent rapid increases, Chinese per capita meat consumption is still only about half of American per capita meat consumption. It is also critical to note that there are vital opportunities to increase productivity in those parts of the world that really need it most – sub-Saharan Africa for example. But what we most need is for rich countries to liberate the world’s food supplies by eating less and throwing away much less. If the Sustainable Development Goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030 is to be achieved – and it needs to be – then rich countries – and rich individuals, big food companies, and governments of rich nations – need to do more than the average and lead the way by reducing this by much more than 50%.

Global food production and land-use change have received less consideration in climate policy negotiations than they warrant. Halting deforestation is not some luxury that we can afford to trade: it has a huge and uncontrollable cost of its own. Allowing deforestation to advance unchecked is the one way that we can be sure to end up with a planet so unhealthy that it can no longer meet the real needs of its human population. In this vein, climate negotiations, such as the upcoming COP21 in Paris, must strengthen measures to curb deforestation. The “need” for extra food must come not from virgin forests slashed and burned for extra farmland, but rather from more efficient consumption habits.

The World Economic Forum on Latin America 2015 takes place in Riviera Maya, Mexico, from 6-8 May.

Author: Tristram Stuart is the founder of Feedback, and a Young Global Leader.

Image: Organic vegetables are shown at a Whole Foods Market in LaJolla, California. REUTERS/Mike Blake.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Industries in DepthGlobal Cooperation
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Robot rock stars, pocket forests, and the battle for chips - Forum podcasts you should hear this month

Robin Pomeroy and Linda Lacina

April 29, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum