young Asian elephant raising its trunk

Comment | Feeding everyone well means dealing with an elephant

If the world’s farmers grow enough food to feed everyone well, why are 800 million people hungry, a billion obese, and 2 billion people with nutrient deficiency?

The answer to why the consequences of a poor diet affect half the people in the world has nothing to do with food.

In 2017, there were approximately 815 million undernourished people in the world , predominantly in Africa and South Asia, and 4 billion faced water scarcity . This is despite the world producing more than enough food for the total global population if it was distributed equally and without waste.

Henry, B., Murphy, B., & Cowie, A. (2018). Sustainable land management for environmental benefits and food security. A Synthesis Report for the GEF (Global Environmental Facility). GEF, Washington, DC, USA.

Feeding everyone well is a social problem. 

Humanity has failed to remove inequality, prejudice and racism that play out in many ways, most seriously in access to food.

A good friend of mine is from Poland. Orphaned in WW2 by the Nazis, he retained his language and cultural connection to Europe even after moving to New Zealand as a child. When I mentioned how remarkable it was that Poles were taking in Ukrainian refugees without the need for camps, he said, “but only the white ones”.

It was a curious reflexive response.

Then, on the excellent Great Simplification podcast, Professor Paul Ehrlich, famous for his 1968 book The Population Bomb, was worried that xenophobia would encourage ugly answers to the population question. His solutions to the overshoot were all social—equality for women, universal access to birth control, and education. 

It seemed he was more worried by the popularity of arguments to stop the poor from breeding and how much the problem was defined by skin colour than the breaching of ecological limits to food production.

We know that the poor do not eat well. 

This is the elephant in the room.

Feeding well is fine for those with access. The wealthy have education giving them knowledge about nutrition and the funds to act on what they know. The disadvantaged lack means and information. 

The only choice many have is for the cheapest, least nutritious food.

Before we get all moral high ground on this, claiming good fresh food is cheap and cheerful or that being vegan will fix everything. Think carefully about what life is like if food uses up half your disposable income.

This is the reality for half the people on earth.

Hero image modified from photo by Nashad Abdu 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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