people buying food in a open-air market

Comment | Now is not the time for bickering

Humans love a good argument and opinions, but we face a collective challenge that everyone should agree needs our undivided attention.

Twenty-two trillion kilocalories a day is the energetic need of the 7.8 billion humans alive today. 

22,000,000,000,000 kilocalories

7,800,000,000 people

A massive volume of food meets this demand daily, 365 days a year. And we can expect this demand to be closer to 32 trillion kilocalories a day by 2050, assuming wealth gains and the locked-in population growth.

These estimates are a simple minimum metabolic rate calculation of 

‘kilocalories to fuel a human body’ x ‘number of bodies’. 

When the number of bodies goes up, so will the calorie demand.

Of course, calories are not the only thing we need from food. Nutrients are required too, but for the moment, the calorific requirement is enough to make the point about production.

An unprecedented volume of food must be grown, harvested, stored, transported, processed, sold, prepared and eaten in every corner of the world to meet this demand for food. 

The logistics of such a task are mind-boggling. Yet it happens every day.

And it has to keep happening. 

If the system fails, even a little, the proportion of people who are always hungry will increase, the sometimes hungry will see their options slashed and, heaven forbid, the lucky ones who shop in supermarkets will be devastated by the occasional empty shelf. 

There are already disadvantaged and poor people in mature economies struggling to access healthy food. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) helped feed 38 million Americans in 2019.

Supply chain fragility is critical for countries too. For example, the UK only grows half its food supply, and the rest it buys from other countries. What happens when those countries feed their people rather than sell food to the British?

quote from Tim Lang on the food grown in the UK

Food security is not a trivial issue. It sits at the base of the needs pyramid for everyone. We can all manage a day or two without food, but it gets very uncomfortable afterwards. 

The prospect of food insecurity plays with everyone’s head. This is partly a psychological response that Maslov recognised but also because actual food shortages result in price spikes and social disorder. Food riots would be the least of them.

The covid pandemic, climate change, and the war in Ukraine provide huge distractions that dominate the news, and social media feeds, but food security is THE issue facing today’s generation

Now is not the time to bicker or pretend that equitable food supply is not an issue.

Now is the time to face the reality of 22 trillion kilocalories per day and counting.

Hero image from photo by Renate Vanaga 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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