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3. Food shortage

Is there a world food shortage?
Where are there regional food shortages?
How common are country-level food shortages?
Causes of shortage
The relationship between drought and famine
Ecological and political aspects of food shortage in the 1990s
Works cited

Ellen Messer and Laurie F. DeRose

Food shortage occurs when food supplies within a bounded region do not provide the energy and nutrients needed by that region's population. Food shortage is most easily conceptualized as a production problem - not enough food is grown to meet regional needs - but constraints on importation as well as storage can also cause or contribute to food shortage. Food shortage is also created where food is exported from areas where production is adequate or even abundant. Historically, the great hunger of Ireland (1845-1847) and the famine of Bengal (1944) have been attributed more to British political decisions to export locally produced grain supplies without compensating imports than to production shortfalls per se (Woodham-Smith 1962; Sen 1981).

Even when production shortfall is the primary cause of insufficient supply, the ecological and political reasons for production problems vary widely. They range from natural disasters such as drought, flood, or fungus, to political disasters such as civil conflict, to misguided economic policies such as price controls- all of which discourage production of essential foods.

In all situations of food shortage, many within the region's population are hungry; but in every food-short region, others still enjoy adequate access to food. Equally, although many are food secure in areas of adequate food production, some still go hungry. These variable patterns of hunger result not only from skewed food distribution within regions based on differential political and economic resources, but also from selective marketing, and from non-market political policies of food extraction or assistance.

This chapter begins with an overview of the evidence for global and regional food shortage and where it is most likely to occur. It then analyses the causes of country or within-country food shortages. Finally, it considers the relationship between drought and famine, using recent evidence to argue that food shortage is not inevitable even in areas of widespread production failures: political, not environmental factors are the primary causes of food shortages. This message is repeated in chapter 6, which addresses food shortage caused by armed conflict.

Is there a world food shortage?

World agriculture produces enough food calories to meet the energy needs of all the nearly 6 billion (6 x 109) people who are alive today. Increased production based on advances in seed, water, and environmental technologies, and their wider dissemination especially in developing countries, have removed insufficient production as a cause of food shortage for the world as a whole. Global agriculture has managed to keep pace with population growth, and world food security is also safeguarded by cereal carry-over stocks; 19-20 per cent of annual cereal consumption is carried over into the next year to provide food in case of disastrous production failure (FAO 1993).1 Nevertheless, during any year in which enough calories are produced on a global level to meet the energy requirements of the entire population, food shortages can still occur under two situations. If the patterning of production directs too many calories into animals instead of humans, some enjoy meat while others lack calories. Alternatively, overemphasis on production of calories may jeopardize the production of other protein- or micronutrient-rich foods that also enter into the calculus of global food security or shortage. Both are production as well as distribution issues.

Dietary factors in world food shortage

The numbers of people potentially supported by the global food supply depend heavily on the kind of diet people consume. The World Hunger Program calculates that global food supplies have been more than adequate, since the mid-1970s, to support the world's population on a vegetarian diet (table 3.1). But they would support only 74 per cent of the 1993 population on a diet where 15 per cent of calories come from animal foods (Uvin 1996). Only 56 per cent of the 1993 world population could have been provided with diets where 25 per cent of calories came from animal foods (Uvin 1996).

Table 3.1 Numbers of people supported by 1993 global food supply with different diets

Diet Population potentially supported by 1993 food supply
Billion Percentage of world population
Near-vegetarian 6.26 112
With 15% of calories from animal foods 4.12 74
With 25% of calories from animal foods 3.16 56

Source: adapted from Uvin (1996)

Vegetarian diets are typical in a wide range of developing countries, but worldwide the demand for meat is growing. Diets in industrialized countries differ widely with respect to their composition: those living in the United Kingdom eat less meat per capita than residents of the United States; meat consumption in Sweden is only 60 per cent of the US average (Bender 1994). Beef production continues to increase and poultry production is increasing faster than population growth rates. Although the rate of growth in the production of animal foods has been slower since 1980 than in the previous few decades, production of these foods continues to increase (Wiener and Wang 1990). Food shortage of the future, calculated on the basis of total future demand for grain consumed directly or in the form of animal foods, will be conditioned by whether peoples adopting richer diets follow the European or US pathway.

Food security must also take into account the growing demand for higher-cost cereals such as rice and wheat over sorghum and root-crops, as well as animal products. All are more resource expensive to produce. Increased demand for meat is a particular concern, since livestock conversions, usually calculated in terms of food energy grain-to-livestock ratios, are high. In a feedlot, it takes two kilos (kilograms) of grain to produce one kilo of chicken or fish, four kilos to produce one kilo of pork, and seven to produce one kilo of beef. Some suggest the ratios may be even higher: 3:1, 6:1, and 16:1. In the 1990s, it was calculated that some 4.3 billion large domesticated animals and 17 billion poultry eat 40 per cent of the world's grain supply (Foster 1992). Animal production also takes land and water resources. The argument can be made that these might be allocated otherwise to less resource-expensive food crops, but the livestock economy is complex, and reductions in animal production will not produce more food suddenly at lower cost.

Food shortage also coincides with adequate calorie production where the foods consumed are deficient in protein or micronutrients. Diets may be adequate in quantity but not quality. The three most common micronutrient deficiencies, those of iron, iodine, and vitamin A, are described in the Introduction to this volume (chapter 1). Such deficiencies are most common in vegetarian or near-vegetarian diets that lack variety, both because such diets tend to be consumed by people who lack resources to acquire greater variety and because some nutrients are more abundant in animal foods.

Strategies to change consumption patterns

These failures of the global food system to prevent food shortage despite adequate food energy production are being addressed in various ways in both developed and developing countries. In developed countries, higher consumption of animal foods is being discouraged. Meat consumption has begun to decline in response to health concerns that diets high in animal fat contribute to cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Nutritionists are also trying to improve the dietary habits of poorer people, who tend to consume diets higher in fat. For reasons of equity and conservation, "food first," ecology, and natural resource advocates in developed countries also stress the importance of "eating low on the food chain" - more grain and vegetables, less meat - to make more food available to meet global food needs, and to encourage sustainable agricultural practices (Lappe 1991; Brown and Kane 1994).

To meet world food needs, fat consumption also needs to be discouraged in some developing countries where average meat consumption is still at relatively healthy levels, but demands for animal protein and fats are increasing.2 Increasing the consumption of grains, legumes, root crops, and vegetables, relative to animal products, involves changing dietary patterns in developed countries and reversing current trends toward higher consumption of meat and fats in developing countries. Since higher status conventionally is associated with greater meat and fat consumption, such dietary change challenges traditional social, as well as nutritional, beliefs and practices and may prove difficult.

Micronutrient deficiencies, by contrast, can be targeted by a number of specific interventions: (1) increasing intake of foods containing them; (2) fortifying or enriching other foods so that they contain more of the needed nutrients, or (3) providing oral or injectable vitamins and minerals. To be successful, however, all rely on some degree of political commitment, as well as behavioural change. Although costs for some programmes are relatively low (e.g. salt iodization costs only about five cents per person per year, and vitamin A capsules only about six cents [Grant 1995]), they demand technical and social organization, and political and community support, for effective implementation and monitoring.

Despite these concerns about dietary quality, the most important conclusion to be drawn from an analysis of global food shortage is that there is no such shortage. Hunger is not primarily caused by food shortage.

Where are there regional food shortages?

Although global food production has kept pace with world population growth, the rate of population growth has outstripped the rate of growth in food production significantly in some developing regions, and caused per capita food availability in these regions to decline. Per capita food production in developing countries overall has increased less than 10 per cent since 1960, despite impressive continued growth in total food production. Trends in food production are the worst in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where per capita food production has decreased slowly but relentlessly in recent years. Developed countries over this same period were able to increase both food production and production per capita, however, benefiting from advancing technology but also much lower population growth rates than in developing countries.

Per capita food availability has remained relatively constant in food-deficit regions and countries, primarily owing to food imports acquired through trade or aid (ACC/SCN 1993). FAO estimates of dietary energy supply (DES), which not only measure net food production (minus exports) and imports but also account for food lost, stored, or used for animal feed or industry, show that in only two regions - SSA and South Asia - does DES per capita fall below basic average requirements (set at 2250 calories [table 3.2]). High fertility combined with underdeveloped agricultural technology and infrastructure, plus high incidence of natural disasters and civil disorder, make SSA the region most evidently food short. In South Asia, even though birth rates and population growth have slowed and agricultural output has increased dramatically in South Asia over the past two decades, there is still not enough food to ensure adequate nourishment for everyone.

Table 3.2 Per capita dietary energy supply by region, 1990

Region Calories Region Calories
Sub-Saharan Africa 2,099 Near East and North Africa 3,094
South Asia 2,245 Oceania 3,330
South-East Asia 2,446 Former USSR 3,380
South America 2,625 Europe 3,450
China 2,657 North America 3,600
Central America 2,822    

Source: Uvin (1994), compiled from ACC/SCN (1993:119) and FAO (1992: 21).

Two lessons that can be drawn from these low-DES regions are that severe production shortfalls are not so easily made up by food imports, and that population growth is not the only cause of food shortage.

In SSA, low DES is often attributed to low import capacity due to low export earnings and large burden of debt service. But even were these constraints removed, there would remain those of low economic (including agricultural) productivity, civil strife, and lack of infrastructure. Greater dependence on imports within the region would also magnify associated logistical problems - higher costs per unit food as demand increases, transportation costs to reach remoter areas, expanded costs of shipping, and storage losses. Multiplying numbers of conflicts and their aftermaths already have created unmet demand for food aid, especially as the costs of the actual food increase in an environment of shrinking foreign assistance.

In South Asia, the data indicate that food shortage remains a key issue, even where per capita food production has continued to rise along with population increase. Per capita DES has increased steadily in South Asia since 1970, despite very modest gains in per capita income (Uvin 1994). Even if lower caloric requirements are accepted for South Asians, based on their smaller body size (see controversy described in chapter 2), there are further signs of food shortage in this region.

Additional indicators of food shortage in both of these regions are provided by the World Food Programme, which has carried out far more emergency operations in SSA than elsewhere; their next most heavily aided region is Asia (Uvin 1994). Emergencies refer to both man-made and natural disasters. Furthermore, in these two regions, each of the three major micronutrient deficiency diseases is a serious public health problem, as contrasted with other regions that suffer from one or two but not all. Their combined food and nutritional deficiencies contribute to a continuing cycle of low productivity and hunger in the countries of these regions.

How common are country-level food shortages?

Global and even regional food availability estimates hide important variations in DES and food self-sufficiency of individual countries. Although Latin America as a whole has more than enough food to feed the region's population, seven countries in the region (with populations totalling 67.2 million people) had DES below requirement over the period from 1988 to 1990 (UNDP 1994). There are an additional 13.6 million people living in countries with inadequate food availability, despite being in regions where food supply is adequate. The remaining 721.5 million people living in hungry countries also live in hungry regions (Uvin 1996).

Food self-sufficiency is an additional issue and a potential determinant of food shortage. "Food First" advocates have argued that the only way for a country to prevent hunger is to promote food self-sufficiency or self-reliance (countries are able to trade for quantities sufficient to meet home country needs [Lappe and Collins 1978]). In their analysis, the country that lacks food self-sufficiency is a hungry country or, in our current terms, food short. Fortunately, the data do not support this oversimplification. Of the 99 countries that did not produce enough food to meet the needs of their national populations in the 1980s, only 48 (32 in SSA) were food short as measured by per capita DES (Uvin 1994). Thus, a country's dependence on imported food does not necessarily mean that more people in the country are hungry or that the country has exhausted its agricultural potential. Small industrial food-importing countries easily produce enough other goods to cover the costs of their food needs, purchased on the world market.

However, Lappe and Collins's assessment may be correct for countries with predominantly poor rural agricultural economies. The failure of a city-state such as Hong Kong to grow enough to feed its urban population has hunger implications that differ greatly from the failures of predominantly rural African countries whose export earnings are low. For poor agricultural populations, whose entitlements to food may come in large part from home production, their country's deteriorating position of food self-sufficiency may be an indicator of their own reduced access to food and resources to produce food.

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