Thanksgiving Dinner photo illustration

After years of decline, worldwide rates of chronic hunger and malnourishment are on the rise as a byproduct of COVID-19. In 2020-2021, roughly 9.9%, or about 161 million people, are considered among the nutrition impoverished.

While agriculture operations across the globe produce more food than ever before and maximize productivity by a staggering degree, nearly one out of ten people still go hungry. That assessment is all the more sobering with growing concerns the world could face a shortage of food to feed its booming population in coming decades.

According to the World Economic Forum, the global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. That means a 60% increase in food demand and it comes during a time when climate change, urbanization and soil degradation will shrink arable land. Water shortages, pollution, and worsening economic inequality are potential secondary factors in this grim scenario.

“There’s a very real possibility that it has an impact on productivity. That’s a very real concern,” said Andrew Stevens, an agricultural economist and lecturer at UW-Madison. “If we don’t change what we do, if we just keep planting on the same dates and don’t change our crops. If we don’t adapt, certainly, there will be some pretty negative consequences.”

While he cautioned that, unaddressed, these burgeoning issues could pose a problem for humanity, Stevens perspective on the situation remained optimistic.

It’s important to remember that issues like food shortages and overpopulation — much in the vein of climate change — have led to no shortage of hand-wringing since the 1800s. Despite this, agriculture has always responded well, Stevens said, because agriculturists inevitably find new ways to innovate, streamline and maximize their operations to feed the masses.

So, while the prospect of feeding another two or so billion people might seem daunting, Stevens said, the world’s farms have always found a way to meet demand and actually decrease rates of hunger across the globe.

“Yes, the climate risk is new and different from previous risks that agriculture has faced. In a lot of ways, it is larger in scale and scope and severity, But also historically every threat to agriculture has been a new novel risk,” Stevens said. “The amount of science we have directed at understanding adaptation to climate is a whole lot more powerful than the amount of science agriculture we had, say, 150 years ago. That gives me some hope that humanity will rise to the challenge.”

The subject is further complicated by a simple question: What defines a food shortage? Is it scarcity so bad that it results in empty shelves? Or is it decreased supply that leads to higher prices on those shelves?

For his part, Stevens said he thinks a worldwide food shortage would more likely fall into the latter category if it were to occur. This could actually pose a benefit in terms of climate change, he noted, as the market would create incentives for consumers to eat food products that aren’t as costly — not only monetarily, but environmentally.

Agriculturists — including Stevens — often frame the issue in terms of productivity. If there’s more mouths to feed in 2050, then world agriculture must boost productivity to meet demand. But, is this the wrong approach, particularly if worsening climate conditions inhibit productivity?

For perspective, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that, annually, the world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food, while the United States discards more food than any other country — nearly 40 million tons, or 80 billion pounds, every flip of the calendar.

So, could it be a matter of better utilizing what we already produce?

That’s part of the equation, Stevens said, but not as much as people might think and much of the issue boils down to how food waste is defined. Is food wasted when Thanksgiving leftovers are dumped in the trash, or is it when excess fat is removed from a T-bone steak?

By different metrics, nearly 40-50% of a chicken will never be consumed, because certain inedible body parts won’t be processed in hyper-specialized ways. It that necessarily food waste?

”If you ask different people what food waste is, you’ll get different answers and distinctions,” Stevens said. “That makes a difference in what conclusions are drawn.”

Depending on how it’s viewed, Stevens said it’s conceivable that modern economies are highly efficient, wasting virtually no food.

”Broadly speaking, in a market-based economy there’s there’s not a lot of what I would consider to be waste,” Stevens said. “There’s always a scope to increase the efficiency of our system and to reduce unnecessary food waste and to I think the way to frame this is to help develop markets for what would otherwise be waste products.”

Communities and agriculturists should think in terms of global food networks — namely, how to produce, ship and allocate food products to hungry mouths across the globe, especially vulnerable areas in underdeveloped nations and economies. Often, Stevens said, it’s simply a matter of access to supply, not a lack of supply, that hurts these communities.

”I would say it’s more about our institutions,” Stevens aid. “It’s more about our markets. It’s more about how things get from where they’re produced to where they’re consumed.”

”The picture is twofold,” he added. “One is increasing technical productivity. That’s empowering farmers to make more optimal decisions by providing them information. And the other component is a much more political. It’s about liberalizing markets. It’s about about the way we politically organize ourselves as a species and about how we convince plants to grow better.”

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