Growing competition for many important crops around the world is sending increasing amounts to uses other than directly feeding people. These competing uses include the manufacture of biofuels; converting crops into processing ingredients, such as cattle meal, hydrogenated oils and starches; and sell them on world markets to countries that can afford to pay for them.
In a recently published studymy co-authors and I estimate that in 2030, only 29% of the world’s harvests of 10 major crops could be directly consumed as food in the countries where they were produced, compared to about 51% in the 1960s. also predict that due to this trend, the world is unlikely to achieve a major sustainable development goal: end hunger by 2030.
A farmer at work. PICTURE: Scott Goodwill/Unsplash
Another 16% of harvests of these crops in 2030 will be used as animal feed, along with a significant portion of the crops that will be processed. This ultimately produces eggs, meat and milk – products that are generally consumed by middle and high income people, rather than those who are undernourished. Diets in poor countries are based on staple foods such as rice, corn, bread and vegetable oils.
The crops we studied – barley, cassava, maize (maize), oil palm, rapeseed (canola), rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugarcane and wheat – together account for more than 80% of all the calories in harvested crops . Our study shows that calorie production in these crops increased by more than 200% between the 1960s and the 2010s.
Today, however, harvests of crops for processing, export and industrial uses are booming. By 2030, we estimate that crops for processing, export and industrial use will likely account for 50% of calories harvested globally. When we add the calories locked up in crops used as animal feed, we calculate that by 2030, about 70% of all calories harvested from these top 10 crops will go to uses other than directly feeding hungry people.
Serve the rich, not the poor
These profound changes show how and where agriculture and agribusiness are responding to the growth of the global middle class. As incomes rise, people demand more animal products and convenient processed foods. They are also using more industrial products that contain plant-based ingredients, such as biofuels, bioplastics and medications.
Many crops for export, processing and industrial purposes are specially selected varieties of the top 10 crops we have analyzed. For example, only about one percent of corn grown in the United States is sweet corn, the type that people eat fresh, frozen, or canned. The rest is mostly field corn, which is used to make biofuels, animal feed and feed additives.
Crops grown for these uses produce more calories per unit area than those harvested for direct food use, and this gap is widening. In our study, we calculated that crops for industrial use already produce twice as many calories as those harvested for direct food consumption, and that their yield increases 2.5 times faster.
The amount of protein per unit of land from processing crops is twice that of food crops and increases the rate of food crops by 1.8 times. Crops harvested for direct food consumption had the lowest yields for all metrics and the lowest improvement rates.
Grow more foods that feed the hungry
What does it mean to reduce hunger? We estimate that by 2030 the world will harvest enough calories to feed its projected population – but it will not use most of these crops for direct food consumption.
According to our analysis, 48 countries will not produce enough calories on their territory to feed their population. Most of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, but they also include Asian countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan and Caribbean countries like Haiti.
Scientists and agricultural experts worked to increase the productivity of food crops in countries where many people are undernourished, but the gains made so far have not been sufficient. There may be ways to persuade richer countries to grow more food crops and divert that extra production to undernourished countries, but that would be a short-term solution.
My colleagues and I believe that the larger goal should be to produce more crops in food-insecure countries that are used directly as food, and to increase their yields. Ending poverty, the UN’s main sustainable development goal, will also allow countries that cannot produce enough food to meet their national needs to import it from other suppliers. Without greater focus on the needs of the world’s undernourished, ending hunger will remain a distant goal.