Increasing food production not the answer to population growth

In developed countries people waste food by eating too much of it, causing health problems and additional social costs

It rots in fridges, in fields, on trucks and in stores — food.

A lot of it. Enough to feed one billion people, according to Ralph Martin, Loblaw chair of the Sustainable Food Production program at the University of Guelph.

Speaking at the University of Manitoba last week, Martin made the case that oft-repeated mantras about the need to increase food production bear re-examination.

“There’s no doubt that the population is growing,” he said. “What I take issue with is the idea that that means the demand for food is going to grow more than the population.”

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While the world’s population may increase by 30 or 40 per cent by 2050, the professor noted that many established estimates put the necessary increase in food production at 75 to 100 per cent over the same period.

“This is not just a supposed, at most meetings I’ve been at this becomes axiomatic, it becomes something that we just must do, we have to increase food production by 70 to 100 per cent,” he said.

But increasing production — using more energy and resources in the process — shouldn’t be the first line of defence.

“We need to examine waste first,” Martin said during an event hosted by the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment.

Depending on where in the world you are, food waste takes different forms. In developing countries most waste occurs post-harvest as a result of limited storage technology and transportation hurdles. In developed nations, where 40 per cent of food is wasted, 50 per cent of all that waste occurs within households.

“Mostly because we buy too much, our fridges are too big, we forget about it and throw it out,” he said, adding that for the average household spending $140 on groceries each week that amounts to throwing out $28 worth of edibles.

“Buy less, buy the quality you want, eat it. It’s not complicated,” Martin said. “It’s an awareness issue. I think that almost everybody who I know does not like to see food wasted, and that includes farmers who are very good at producing it, they don’t like to see it wasted either. I think we all have an interest in having a system that makes sense that we produce enough so that we eat enough and not more than that, and that’s really all I’m saying.”

Eating 1.6 times too much

Overconsumption also amounts to a type of waste. While nearly a billion people suffer because they have too little to eat, nearly twice that many people suffer because they eat too much.

Canadian statistics aren’t available, but Martin believes Canadians’ consumption patterns would be similar to Americans, who on average eat 1.6 times the amount of food they need to, resulting in obesity and other health problems.

But most pin the disparity between population growth and the established estimated need for increased food production not on waste, said Martin, but on a growing demand for animal protein, particularly from China.

But he said that may not be the case, noting demand for animal protein began to decline in China a few years ago. Those in the developed world could also take a step back, examine their meat consumption and look at adding protein from foods like legumes and pulses.

“I think there is still a role for meat and I think there is still a role for intensive agriculture, provided it’s balanced with ecological imperatives,” he said. “The main thing I’m challenging is that we have to double food production at a time when the population is only going to go up 30 or 40 per cent.”

He also challenges the idea that intensive agriculture should focus on crops used for livestock feed. Arguing that no food fit for human consumption should be diverted to livestock, Martin pointed to a number of ways that unavoidable food waste can be channelled back into livestock production reducing the amount of feed grain needed.

And while technology is key in many areas, the relationship between the introduction of new technologies and the global push for increased production should also be carefully examined.

“It’s just a matter of having an awareness about that and not just blindly carrying on as if we’re frantic and have to produce more and more and more, there are options that we can think about. We can slow down a little bit, and take account of what’s really happening,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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