Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Feeding the World

One in every nine people on the planet - 795 million in all - still goes to sleep hungry yet a quarter of all the food in the world is lost each year, owing to inefficient harvesting, inadequate storage, and wastage in the kitchen. Halve that waste and the world could feed an extra billion people - and make hunger yesterday's problem.

In the rich world, the focus is on food wasted by the consumer. This makes sense: more than half of the rich world's losses take place in its kitchens (basically because we can afford it). By contrast, the world's hungry poor waste very little, simply because they cannot afford to. In Africa, daily food waste averages 500 calories per person - but consumers account for only 5% of this loss. More than three-quarters of the waste occurs well before the kitchen, in inefficient agriculture, because birds and rats eat crops during harvest, for example, or pests spoil grain stores.

There are many remedies for this kind of waste so why aren't these technologies - widely used in richer countries - adopted in the developing world? Economists from the International Food Policy Research Institute estimate that the overall cost of approximately halving post-harvest losses in the developing world would be US$239 billion over the next 15 years - and would generate benefits worth more than US$3 trillion, or US$13 of social benefits for every dollar spent. By 2050, better infrastructure could mean that 57 million people - more than the current population of South Africa - would no longer be at risk of hunger, and that about four million children would no longer suffer from malnutrition. Most of these gains would be in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the world's most deprived regions.

We can achieve three times the economic benefits, and even larger reductions in the number of people at risk of hunger, if we focus on improving food production rather than just on preventing food losses.

Today, only US$5 billion is spent annually on research to improve the seven major global food crops, and just one-tenth of that is targeted to help small farmers in Africa and Asia. Investing an extra US$88 billion in agricultural research and development over the next 15 years would increase yields by an additional 0.4% each year. That might not sound like very much, but the improvements in food security would help almost everyone. It would be worth nearly US$3 trillion in social good - yielding an enormous US$34 of benefits for every dollar spent.


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