pizza on a pizza board fresh from the oven

Massive changes in average daily energy consumption from food

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.

The global average daily energy consumption for all humans is 2,928 kcal daily (2018), collectively 22 trillion kilocalories a day.

Single metrics hide many sins, but the average global citizen is above the threshold for energy intake, a good indicator of food consumption. For energy needs at least, the average human is getting enough food.  

And the trend in food consumption is rising. That global average is 747 kcal or 34% higher than when I was born in 1961. 

Comparisons with historical food consumption are also revealing. 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 energy consumption 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 around 500 kcal per person in my lifetime. That is the same as gaining a Big Mac or four large bananas daily.

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. 

It is always wise to be cautious with averages, especially in the absence of any variance measure, but overall, food availability worldwide has improved.

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

Kilocalorie needs and wants

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 to deliver this energy need. In the aggregate, the average daily energy consumption meets this requirement almost everywhere. 

Also, the kilocalorie 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 food per capita that stretches to protein consumption

Upward trends keep politicians happy and make investors smile. It also makes them complacent as they assume all is well with the trends in the right direction.

However, an ever higher average daily energy consumption can create problems. 

For example, France went from famine and malnutrition 200 years ago to 1 in 10 people being obese, and almost 40% are overweight (including obese) by 2018. OECD projections indicate that overweight rates will increase by 10% within ten years—soon, half the global population will consume more food than they need.

There is an obesity epidemic coming because of the source of these calories coming from grains, sugar and seed oils. 

There is too much of a good thing.

Food insecurity affects one in three.

The absence of variance information in those average daily energy consumption figures—the distribution of daily energy consumption around the average value—can hide overconsumption and food scarcity.  

The United Nations estimated that 2.37 billion people could not access adequate food in 2020.

In other words, nearly a third of the global population is food insecure, and not all live in poorer countries. There are more Americans on food stamps than the total population of Canada.

Then there is the nutrition issue missed with a focus on average daily energy consumption. Calorie intake might be adequate, but humans also need enough protein for a healthy diet and multiple micro-nutrients and minerals necessary for metabolic health.  The World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that more than two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiency globally.

Then there is the elephant in the room.

close-up of a wheat crop ready for harvest, food to meet the average daily energy consumption

Grwoing enough food to meet the average daily energy consumption is critical. Photo by Evi Radauscher on Unsplash

Maintaining the average daily energy consumption

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. 

It is not smart to just increase the average daily energy consumption from food without addressing the variability. If the average goes up and the variance is maintained, we end up with ever larger numbers of people malnourished—some get too many calories and some too few.

The number of malnourished will increase while we are still on the upward curve of the population spike, even if food consumption increases. 

A high priority should be redistribution to reduce excess calorie consumption and ensure access to food for those suffering from food insecurity.  

Then we see the elephant.

Food production is increasingly dependent on fossil fuel inputs. Most calories that generate the average daily energy consumption come from a small proportion of global farms operating intensive agriculture. At least 4 billion people are dependent on food from the shops. 

Intensive agriculture produces high yields, especially for grains, seed oils and sugar crops. Only the production process requires machinery run on diesel fuel, fertilisers made with natural gas, and pesticides made in factories.  

No more oil might sound good on the climate marches but cut out oil, and there is insufficient food. 

Intensive agricultural systems rely on inputs designed around healthy, productive soils. However, intensive production depletes the nutrient and organic matter content, and they degrade. The yield gap is closed when machines and inputs replace traditional systems but there is no guarantee that yield can be maintained.

In short, global food production could go down. 

Global food production is precarious as it relies on long supply chains, is overly complex and vulnerable to shortages of critical inputs. 

The outlook is pessimistic even though the historical trend is for. 

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. 

Recently the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres said this

we are hurtling toward disaster, eyes wide open, with far too many willing it on wishful thinking, unproven technologies, and silver bullet solutions. It’s time to wake up, and step up. 

António Guterres, UN Secretary General 

We agree and are keen to find innovations that will reduce the likelihood of increases and cliffs and make the maintenance of average daily energy consumption at a reasonable level that reduces malnutrition in both directions and maintains food production even as the climate changes.

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

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 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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