Download the Webzine: The Need for more Equitable Distribution


Hello, my name is Evan Fraser and I work at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

As anyone who has watched the other videos knows climate change, population growth, and high energy prices mean many worry that farmers will struggle to produce enough food for us all over the next generation. This video looks at how better food distribution can help us overcome this problem.

For instance, United Nations data show there are almost 2800 calories produced on the planet per person per day [1].  This is more than enough for everyone alive to live a healthy life [2]. However, because our food is unevenly distributed, and because we waste roughly one third of our food [3], there are about 870 hungry people on the planet[4].  Meanwhile, another 1.5 billion adults are overweight or obese. [5]

Arguments about food distribution date back to the 1980s when the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen published the groundbreaking book Poverty and Famines.  In it, Sen argued that food insecurity is not caused by a lack of food so much as a lack of economic and political power that allows citizens to demand food in our global market that includes the ultra poor and the ultra rich [6].

There are at least three ways experts think we can correct this imbalance.

First, some point out that since the US uses about 40% of its corn for ethanol [7] we have a conflict of “food versus fuel” [8] [9]and more food would be eaten if the US dropped this policy. But many disagree. For instance, producing ethanol only uses the sugar in the corn and leaves protein rich by-products that are fed to animals [10]. So it is not as if these grains, the vast majority of which would have been used for livestock anyways, have been taken out of the food system.  The second reason is more important. The people on the planet who need food most are too poor and too remote to be able to afford it.  So it’s not certain there would be any fewer hungry people on the planet if the American Government simply stopped subsidizing ethanol. [11]

Second, it’s clear some parts of the world have too much food, and some too little, so shouldn’t it to possible to simply export food from surplus regions (like the US and Canada) to areas that don’t have enough (like Africa), say, by giving it away as food aid?  Unfortunately, food aid drives down agricultural prices in the developing world, and this hurts farm incomes, which is important since most of the world’s poor are farmers.  As a result, most development agencies are moving away from using food aid except as short-term humanitarian relief. [12]

A third strategy is for wealthy consumers to simply eat less meat, and in particular meat that comes from resource intensive “factory” farms.  This is because it takes many kilograms of grain to produce a much smaller amount of meat[13] and so advocates for vegetarian diets argue that our grains would go further if they were eaten directly by people instead of being fed to animals. [14]

The problem with this approach, however, is how to do this.  Global data show meat and dairy consumption rising fast [15], and while it might be nice to think that in the future humanity’s diet will be less taxing, for now there is no evidence to suggest this is going to happen any time soon.

But this doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do to better distribute food.

One strategy is to maintain larger food reserves as a buffer against short falls.  In the past, the UN funded strategic grain reserves that African nations would use to keep prices level in times of crop failure [16].  But this program was prone to corruption and mismanagement, as well as being expensive, so it has fallen out of use [17].  Because of this global and national food stocks have fallen over the past 10 years to the point where today many worry we are just one bad harvest away from a major humanitarian catastrophe [18].

As a result, calls are growing to establish food reserves that would keep prices level. While there is discussion as to who should own such stocks, and how they should be governed, the fact remains that having robust stocks is a crucial strategy to promote a resilient global food system.[19]

In the end, though, arguments about food storage, bioethanol and North American diets need to be seen against the bigger issue of poverty. All the food in the world won’t help if people are too poor to afford it.[20] Therefore, along with the strategies noted above, we also need to have programs that work with the poor to develop small-scale enterprises, such as loaning women in Africa enough money to set up market gardens, and start raising small scale livestock like rabbits, chickens or goats.[21] [22] Properly done, such strategies give poor farmers (who are amongst the poorest of the poor around the world) the capability to lift themselves out of poverty.[23]


[1] While global hunger remains a devastating problem, progress has been made in recent years to decrease the number of people suffering from a lack of food. This website provides definitions for many frequently used terms in the discussion of hunger, as well as information on the causes and solutions to widespread hunger. “2013 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics.” World Hunger Education Service” hunger facts 2002.htm

[2] Canada’s Food Guide provides the estimated daily caloric requirements of a person, according to their age, sex, and level of physical activity. “Estimated Energy Requirements.” Health Canada. Canadian Government:

It is important to note that energy requirements do vary on an individual level, but on average, the FDA recommends the daily consumption of 2,000 calories:

[3] This report outlines the causes of food waste throughout the entire food system, in both developed and developing regions. For a brief summary of the report, read pages v-vi. Gustavsson, Jenny, Christel Cederberg, Ulf Sonesson, Robert Van Otterdijk, and Alexandre Maybeck. Global Food Losses and Food Waste – Extent, Causes, and Prevention. Rep. FAO, 2011:

[4] This news article by the FAO outlines the current state of global hunger, as well as the recent progress that has been made in decreasing the number of people worldwide suffering from chronic hunger. “Globally almost 870 million chronically undernourished Food and Agriculture Organization. United Nations, 9 Oct. 2012:

[5] Of course there is considerable debate on these statistics.  One of the world’s authorities on this is B. Popkin who argues that 1.5 billion adults worldwide in 2008 were afflicted by either being obese or over weight.  The academic reference for this is: POPKIN, B. M., ADAIR, L. S. & NG, S. W. 2012. Global nutrition transition and the pandemic of obesity in developing countries. Nutrition Reviews, 70, 3-21.

This is confirmed by the World Health Organization who also states that there are about 500 million obese adults. The World Health Organization website also provides some background on how they calculate these figures.  Please see:

[6] In this book, Sen explores the political and social causations of chronic hunger and famine. SEN, A. 1981. Poverty and Famines, Oxford, Claredon Press. This book is a must read for anyone with an interest in international development.

[7] This opinion piece from the New York Times discusses the wide-reaching implications of American biofuel policy. Colin A., and Henry I. Miller. “Corn for Food, Not Fuel.” New York Times. N.p., 30 July 2012:

[8] See the following: Kazinform (2008), “Biofuels major cause of global food riots”, Kazakhstan National Information Agency, April 11.

[9] See the following: Brown, L. (2008), Starving for Fuel: How Ethanol Production Contributes to Global Hunger, Global Briefing.

[10] This publication provides an overview of US corn production, both in terms of the crop’s increasing importance in the international economy, and some examples of the many uses corn has in our everyday lives. NATIONAL CORN GROWERS ASSOCIATION 2013. World of Corn. Unlimited Possibilities:

[11] Food prices have been steadily rising both within the US and globally, as explained in this opinion piece. Carter, Colin A., and Henry I. Miller. “Corn for Food, Not Fuel.” New York Times:

[12] For instance, in 2012 the US’ development agency USAID made a major policy shift away from using food aid and towards longer term poverty reduction and development.  These changes are described on the following web site:

[13] Raising livestock takes eight times more fossil-fuel energy than producing a similar amount of food using plant based crops, and meat protein is only marginally more nutritious than plant protein, as discussed in this newspaper article. U.S. Could Feed 800 Million People with Grain That Livestock Eat, Cornell Ecologist Advises Animal Scientists.” Cornell Chronicle. Cornell University:

[14] FAO (2008), “Assessment of the world food security and nutrition situation”, Report presented by the Committee on World Food Security at the Thirty-fourth Session, Rome, October 14-17.

[15] With growing consumer prosperity throughout the world, there is a rising trend in the demand for meat. This academic journal article discusses the problems that will arise with global diets becoming more reliant on animal protein. DE BAKKER, E. & DAGEVOS, H. 2012. Reducing meat consumption in today’s consumer society: Questioning the citizen-consumer gap. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 25, 877-894.

[16] This paper explores some of the political and technical causes of the 2002 famine in Malawi, as well as discussing the evolution of Strategic Grain Reserves. DEVEREUX, S. 2002. The Malawi Famine of 2002. IDS Bulletin, 33, 70-78.

[17] See previous footnote for background.

[18] Our food system has been successful because of a delicate balance between inputs and outputs, but some worry that growing food demand, and climatic change could tip this balance towards disaster. Lean, Geoffrey. “One Poor Harvest Away from Chaos.” The Telegraph

[19] The following links to an organization devoted to establishing a world food reserve

[20] See the following report: FAO (2008), “National policy responses to high food prices”, FAO’s Economic and Social Development Department (ES), Policy Brief 1. FAO (2008g), “Soaring food prices: facts, perspectives, impacts and actions required”, available at: 0SID/PANA-7FSG8E?OpenDocument

[21] This is something I wrote about for a an op-ed in the Guardian:

[22] Here is an academic article on the same: Hovorka, Alice J.(2006)’The No. 1 Ladies’ Poultry Farm: A feminist political ecology of urban agriculture in Botswana’,Gender, Place & Culture,13:3,207 — 225

[23] While such approaches may help poor farmers, it is also important to note that many of the world’s poor, such as unemployed youth in the cities in the developing world, have no access to land.  Other strategies are needed to help such people. Helping empower these people requires very different strategies, hence we must avoid the temptation to assume that there are any silver bullets or that there are any one-size-fits all approaches to tackle these issues