pizza on a pizza board fresh from the oven

Change in calories

Average daily food consumption is above the 2,500 kilocalorie threshold to maintain human body weight in all regions of the world. A remarkable achievement.

Here is a curious quote we came across recently

the energy value of the typical diet in France at the start of the eighteenth century was as low as that of Rwanda in 1965, the most malnourished nation for that year in the tables of the World Bank

Fogel (2004) – The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World.

This sounds like a remarkable statistic. It took just 200 years to more than double the available calories for citizens even as the population more than tripled. 

The same can be said for China. In the 1960s, the daily per capita supply of calories was below 1,500 kcal per day. Today China supplies over 3,100 kcal per capita when the population is at 1.39 billion (2018), again more than double the number in 1960.

The point of these comparisons is that the availability of food measured as calories consumed per person per day generally increases over time, as this graph from the Our World in Data website shows. 

graph of the increase in daily supply of calories per person by global region, 1961 to 2013

Most regions have seen a daily gain of 500 kcal per person in my lifetime. That is the same as gaining a Big Mac or four large bananas daily.

Overall global food availability as daily calorific supply has increased by 25% since 1961. There are regional differences, with some losses, particularly in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and some declines in North America in more recent times. 

But overall, food availability across the world has improved.

three Islamic women enjoying a meal outdoors
Photo by Gradikaa Aggi on Unsplash

Calorie needs

All things being equal, an average woman needs to eat about 2,000 kilocalories per day, and an average man needs 2,500 kilocalories to maintain body weight. Not that anything is ever equal.

Given all the regional averages are above 2,500 kilocalories, there is enough food. The average daily supply meets this requirement almost everywhere. 

Also, the calorie trends are positive. Over time the number of people worldwide that are short of food is declining. The Chinese example, in particular, is a remarkable story of maintaining growth in the amount of food per capita that stretches to protein consumption

Upward trends keep politicians happy and make investors smile, but too much nutrition is a problem too. 

France went from famine and malnutrition 200 years ago to 1 in 10 people being obese, and almost 40% are overweight (including obese). OECD projections indicate that overweight rates will increase by 10% within ten years. Half the population will consume more food than they need in a decade.

There is too much of a good thing.

The challenge for the next 50 years is to let the average daily supply of calories plateau even as the net demand for food grows due to global population increases. 

Food production could go in the other direction. Global food production is precarious as it relies on long supply chains, is overly complex and vulnerable to shortages of critical inputs. 

At least half the global food supply is from intensive agricultural systems reliant on inputs and built for healthy, productive soils. However, intensive production depletes the nutrient and organic matter content, and they degrade.  

Overall we need more resilient food production systems that can still deliver 22 trillion kilocalories a day.

The outlook is pessimistic even though the historical trend is for growth in food production and the average daily supply of calories. 

What sustainably FED suggests

At sustainably FED we are frightened of curves that continually go upwards. 

We are systems ecologists and know that resilient systems cycle; they do not go on benders that send trends upwards unless they trend downwards too. 

The trend could quickly turn into a plummet and fall off the cliff. 

So we are keen to find innovations that will reduce the likelihood of increase and cliffs and make the maintenance of calorific production at a reasonable level that reduces malnutrition in both directions and maintains food production as the climate changes as the nutrients.

Such a delicate balance is tricky. 

It will mean a radical change in how food is grown, in diet, and all the social structures around food getting onto dinner plates. These will not be easy changes, but they are possible—unlike finding another planet on which to live.  

Fortunately, the flip side of a challenge is opportunity. We just need to find the people with the energy and imagination to link the two.

Hero image from photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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