Has the earth come with food for mankind

Global population development, food production and environmental impacts

In 2011 the world population exceeded seven billion people. By 2050 we will be nine billion. Although there is theoretically enough food for everyone worldwide today, it is not available to all people to the same extent. On the one hand, around 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger. Another billion people are deficient in vitamins and minerals.

On the other hand, many people have an abundance of food. A total of 2.1 billion people are overweight, especially in industrialized countries. A considerable part of the food is also thrown away there. In Germany alone, every person throws an average of 82 kilograms of food in the trash every year.

Global population growth will mean that the need for food will increase in many regions of the world. This is because the growth is primarily taking place in those parts of the world that are already struggling with food shortages. In addition, consumption habits in some emerging countries are approaching those of industrialized countries - growing prosperity leads to more consumption.

graphic: Umwelt-im-unterricht.de/CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The population figures in western industrialized countries are hardly growing or are stagnating. In contrast, strong growth is expected in Southeast Asia and Africa.

At the same time, global food production is causing enormous environmental problems in some areas. This is mainly due to the water and space requirements, the CO2-Emissions from transport and the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Unequal distribution, different consumption habits

In theory, global food production is already sufficient to feed twelve billion people. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2,700 kilocalories per capita are available daily. For comparison: the FAO names 1,800 kilocalories as the threshold value for a healthy life. If an adult eats less over a longer period of time, this is considered starvation.

But the distribution of the available calories is very different around the world: While a person in Europe has an average of 3,372 kilocalories per day, in Africa it is only 2,615 kilocalories per person per day. In individual regions and population groups, the supply is far below that.

The reasons for this are very diverse. This includes natural conditions such as the climate or the nature of the soil. In addition, there are social conditions that have long-term effects - for example, the poverty of certain population groups or economic structures. Individual events such as wars or crop failures due to extreme weather conditions can also lead to an insufficient supply. The consequences can be malnutrition and hunger.

Aside from the availability of food, eating habits and consumption patterns also differ widely around the world - and influence which foods are produced and which are put on the market.

The ecological footprint of food

The unequal distribution of food also has an ecological dimension: Food production requires resources and they are not available in unlimited quantities. How much and which resources are required differs depending on the type of food and the production conditions. The environmental impact of the production of certain foods is often referred to as the "ecological footprint".

The basic resource is water. Agriculture is not possible without sufficient water available. Water resources are also very unevenly distributed around the world. While in Germany there is almost always sufficient water available for agriculture due to precipitation, it is scarce and precious in other regions of the world. Due to the lack of precipitation, groundwater or water from natural bodies of water is often used there. This can lead to a lowering of the groundwater level and the drying up of natural waters.

At the same time, the water requirements for the production of different foods are extremely different. One kilogram of potatoes requires a good 250 liters of water, while one kilogram of beef takes almost 15,500 liters. Most of the water required in meat production is used in the manufacture of animal feed. The water required for the production of goods is often referred to as "virtual water".

Graphic: Environment in teaching / CC BY-SA 4.0, source: BMEL "Understanding world nutrition - facts and backgrounds", p. 16 (Link: http://www.bmel.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/Broschueren/Welternaehrung-verhaben. pdf? __ blob = publicationFile)

A second fundamentally important resource is agricultural land or soil. A field can only be cultivated once at a time.

Increasing agricultural production often goes hand in hand with an increase in the area under cultivation. In many regions of the world, an increasing need for space is leading to the clearing of forests, some of which are enormous: in Brazil alone, almost 5,900 square kilometers of rainforest were cleared in 2014 - an area more than twice the size of Saarland. In Southeast Asia, too, rainforest is being lost at an alarming rate. In autumn 2015, catastrophic forest fires in Indonesia caused by illegal slash and burn caused a worldwide sensation.

The deforestation has consequences for the environment that are felt both locally and globally. Not only are important habitats for animals and plants being destroyed by clearing, the rainforest also plays a decisive role in the global climate. The plant matter in the rainforest binds CO2, which is also released by fire clearance. The clearing of rainforest is therefore responsible for more than ten percent of human-made carbon dioxide emissions.

In addition, the agricultural use of cleared areas damages the soil. Tropical soils are poor in humus. The plants in the rainforests do not draw their nutrients for the most part from the soil, but from the biomass that is rotting on the ground. Agricultural use deprives the soil of the rest of the nutrients and seriously violates its balance.

In total, almost ten million hectares of arable land are lost every year - an area almost as large as Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia put together. Other reasons for this development are overfertilization, intensive agriculture and the cultivation of monocultures, which always deprive soils of the same nutrients and therefore permanently damage them. As a result, many soil areas around the world now have significantly less humus and nutrients than they did 25 years ago. A quarter of all areas worldwide can no longer be used as arable land.

A conceivable expansion of the area also comes up against limits, because a considerable part of the agriculturally usable area is used for the production of goods that are not or only indirectly related to food production, especially for animal feed. Animal feed production already ties up a third of the arable land available worldwide. In addition, areas are used to grow energy crops such as rapeseed and maize.

"Export" of resource requirements and environmental problems

Overall, Germany exports more agricultural goods than it imports. However, consumers and the economy in Germany cannot do without agricultural imports: The imported goods include, for example, coffee, tea, meat, fruit and nuts. For many foods, consumption and production take place in different places, so that the environmental consequences of consumption are "exported".

For example, much of the food imported into Germany is produced in regions that have less water than Germany. Nevertheless, Germany "imports" "virtual water" by importing goods. This means that water resources are used in the country of origin for the production of goods that are consumed in Germany. In 2010, Germany imported 103 million cubic meters of "virtual water", while 66 million cubic meters were exported.

One example is imported potatoes. Potatoes from German production are available almost all year round. Nevertheless, over 120,000 tons of potatoes are imported annually, mainly from Israel and North Africa. There the cultivated areas have to be artificially irrigated. In addition, imports pollute the environment through transport.

The principle can be transferred to the space requirement. One often speaks of "area exports". This means that land is used in the countries of origin for goods that are consumed elsewhere. A vivid example is meat. A cattle, for example, not only consumes a lot of water during its rearing, it also needs to be fed. This requires either large pastures or feed for fattening animals that are kept in stalls.

Agriculture in Germany

Agriculture in Germany is very productive by international standards. In Germany, an average of 45 tons of potatoes can be produced on one hectare of arable land. In Africa, on the other hand, three hectares of arable land are required for the same amount. The difference in wheat cultivation is just as great. In the case of maize, the difference in productivity is even greater: in Germany four times as much is produced on the same area.

There are various reasons why agriculture in Germany works relatively efficiently. In addition to good technical equipment for farmers, this also includes the good availability of the resources soil and water. This is by no means the case everywhere in the world.

Feed the world - but how?

In the 19th century, a farmer in Germany was still feeding an average of four people; by the middle of the 20th century it was already ten. Today one farmer is able to feed 129 people. The figures illustrate the productivity increases that have already been achieved in agriculture. In view of the growing world population, the goal for the future is to achieve more agricultural productivity while avoiding negative effects on the environment.

Experts believe that a wide range of possible solutions must be pursued for this. There are no simple panaceas, according to a statement by the Scientific Advisory Board for Agricultural Policy at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture.

The solution approaches relate to both demand and production. For example, the consumption of meat and other animal products can be reduced where meat is consumed in large quantities. However, animal products can make an important contribution to nutrition in many developing countries with low consumption.

Another approach is to use production more efficiently. A significant proportion of food is thrown away not only in industrialized countries. In developing countries, too, some of the food is lost after the harvest. Transport and storage can often be improved.

In addition, more must be produced with the available resources. In view of the very different global conditions, experts advise that production must be adapted to the respective location with the aim of using local resources sustainably but as efficiently as possible.

One approach to tackling the many environmental problems is the orientation towards the principles of organic agriculture. She uses methods that preserve soil fertility and should not negatively affect humans, animals and the environment. On the one hand, this means that no synthetic chemical agents are used in crop protection and that less susceptible varieties are increasingly grown. On the other hand, weeds are fought mechanically and not chemically, organic fertilizers are used and the use of antibiotics is largely dispensed with in animal husbandry. In addition, an operational nutrient cycle that is as closed as possible should be achieved. This means that feed and fertilizers are produced as far as possible on the farms in which they are used.

Consumers in Germany can also contribute something to possible solutions. Because consumption habits influence the market and production:

  • less meat: Comparatively large amounts of water and space are required for the production of meat. A diet with less meat helps to use the resources available around the world more efficiently.
  • fair and organic cultivation: If you pay attention to the conditions under which imported products were manufactured when shopping, you can influence working and production conditions - even in distant countries - and at the same time prevent false incentives from leading to environmentally harmful cultivation methods.
  • Avoid problematic imports: For some products, a look at the ingredients can also help. For example, many foods and cosmetic products contain palm oil. 85 percent of world production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, where rainforests are sometimes illegally cleared for the cultivation of oil palms. An alternative are certified products - for example with the organic seal - from environmentally friendly cultivation.
  • consume regionally and seasonally: Nobody has to do without certain products, but it is often worth taking a look at the calendar. Because many products have a different ecological footprint, depending on the season. Not all products on the shelf can be grown all year round in Germany or its neighboring countries. Asparagus, which can be bought in winter, has come a lot further than asparagus, which is offered in June.

Related Links

Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL): "Understanding world nutrition: facts and backgrounds" http://www.bmel.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/Broschueren/Welternaehrung-verhaben.pdf;jsessionid=B1F25119EE80BD775A73F936A2A2712C.2_cid288?__Fblob=publication

Federal Environment Agency (UBA): "Environment, Households and Consumption"

Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL): "Food for Billions: Research Activities of the Federal Government as a Contribution to Global Food Security"

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