F9B: The Illustrated Series

Download the Webzine: The Need for more Equitable Distribution


Hello, my name is Evan Fraser and I work at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

As anyone who has watched the other videos knows climate change, population growth, and high energy prices mean many worry that farmers will struggle to produce enough food for us all over the next generation. This video looks at how better food distribution can help us overcome this problem.

For instance, United Nations data show there are almost 2800 calories produced on the planet per person per day.  This is more than enough for everyone alive to live a healthy life. However, because our food is unevenly distributed, and because we waste roughly one third of our food, there are about 870 hungry people on the planet.  Meanwhile, another 1.5 billion adults are overweight or obese. 

Arguments about food distribution date back to the 1980s when the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen published the groundbreaking book Poverty and Famines.  In it, Sen argued that food insecurity is not caused by a lack of food so much as a lack of economic and political power that allows citizens to demand food in our global market that includes the ultra poor and the ultra rich.

There are at least three ways experts think we can correct this imbalance.

First, some point out that since the US uses about 40% of its corn for ethanol we have a conflict of “food versus fuel” and more food would be eaten if the US dropped this policy. But many disagree. For instance, producing ethanol only uses the sugar in the corn and leaves protein rich by-products that are fed to animals. So it is not as if these grains, the vast majority of which would have been used for livestock anyways, have been taken out of the food system.  The second reason is more important. The people on the planet who need food most are too poor and too remote to be able to afford it.  So it’s not certain there would be any fewer hungry people on the planet if the American Government simply stopped subsidizing ethanol. 

Second, it’s clear some parts of the world have too much food, and some too little, so shouldn’t it to possible to simply export food from surplus regions (like the US and Canada) to areas that don’t have enough (like Africa), say, by giving it away as food aid?  Unfortunately, food aid drives down agricultural prices in the developing world, and this hurts farm incomes, which is important since most of the world’s poor are farmers.  As a result, most development agencies are moving away from using food aid except as short-term humanitarian relief. 

A third strategy is for wealthy consumers to simply eat less meat, and in particular meat that comes from resource intensive “factory” farms.  This is because it takes many kilograms of grain to produce a much smaller amount of meat and so advocates for vegetarian diets argue that our grains would go further if they were eaten directly by people instead of being fed to animals. 

The problem with this approach, however, is how to do this.  Global data show meat and dairy consumption rising fast, and while it might be nice to think that in the future humanity’s diet will be less taxing, for now there is no evidence to suggest this is going to happen any time soon.

But this doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do to better distribute food.

One strategy is to maintain larger food reserves as a buffer against short falls.  In the past, the UN funded strategic grain reserves that African nations would use to keep prices level in times of crop failure.  But this program was prone to corruption and mismanagement, as well as being expensive, so it has fallen out of use.  Because of this global and national food stocks have fallen over the past 10 years to the point where today many worry we are just one bad harvest away from a major humanitarian catastrophe.

As a result, calls are growing to establish food reserves that would keep prices level. While there is discussion as to who should own such stocks, and how they should be governed, the fact remains that having robust stocks is a crucial strategy to promote a resilient global food system.

In the end, though, arguments about food storage, bioethanol and North American diets need to be seen against the bigger issue of poverty. All the food in the world won’t help if people are too poor to afford it. Therefore, along with the strategies noted above, we also need to have programs that work with the poor to develop small-scale enterprises, such as loaning women in Africa enough money to set up market gardens, and start raising small scale livestock like rabbits, chickens or goats. Properly done, such strategies give poor farmers (who are amongst the poorest of the poor around the world) the capability to lift themselves out of poverty.