A shrinking fraction of the world’s major crops goes to feed the hungry, with more used for nonfood purposes


Increasing competition for many of the world’s important crops is sending increasing quantities to other uses than directly feeding people. These competing uses include the production of biofuels; converting crops into processing ingredients, such as cattle meal, hydrogenated oils and starch; and sell them on global markets to countries that can afford to pay for them.

In a recently published study, my co-authors and I estimate that by 2030, only 29% of the global harvests of 10 major crops can be consumed directly as food in the countries where they were produced, a decrease from about 51% in the 1960s. We also anticipate that, due to this trend, the world is unlikely to achieve a top goal for sustainable development: stop the famine 2030.

A further 16% of the crops of these crops by 2030 will be used as fodder for livestock, along with significant parts of the crops that are processed. This ultimately produces eggs, meat and milk – products that are usually eaten by middle- and high-income earners, rather than those who are malnourished. Diets in poor countries depend on staple foods such as rice, corn, bread and vegetable oils.

The crops we studied – barley, cassava, corn (corn), oil palm, rapeseed (rapeseed), rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar cane and wheat – together account for more than 80% of all calories from harvested crops. Our study shows that calorie production in these crops increased by more than 200% between the 1960s and 2010s.

Today, however, the crops of crops for cultivation, export and industrial use are flourishing. By 2030, we estimate that crops for processing, export and industrial use are likely to account for 50% of the calories harvested worldwide. When we add the calories trapped in crops used as animal feed, we estimate that by 2030, approximately 70% of all calories harvested from these top 10 crops will go to uses other than directly feeding hungry people.

World maps showing increasing non-food use of crops worldwide
These two maps show how the use of 10 large food crops changed from the 1960s to the 2010s. In areas ranging from blue and green to red and purple, crops are increasingly used for food processing, export and industrial uses (labeled “other”). One hectare corresponds to about 2.5 hectares.
Ray et al., 2022, CC BY-ND

Serves the rich, not the poor

These profound changes show how and where agriculture and the agricultural industry react to the growth of the global middle class. As incomes rise, people demand more animal products and convenient processed foods. They also use more industrial products that contain herbal ingredients, such as biofuels, bioplaster and drug.

Many crops grown for export, processing and industrial use are specially bred varieties of the 10 main crops we analyzed. For example, Only about 1% of the corn grown in the United States is sweet corn, the type that people eat fresh, frozen or canned. The rest is mostly field maize used to produce biofuels, animal feed and food additives.

Crops grown for these uses produce more calories per unit of land than those harvested for direct food use, and that gap is widening. In our study, we calculated that crops for industrial use already provide twice as many calories as those harvested for direct food consumption, and their yields increase 2.5 times faster.

The amount of protein per unit of land from crop processing is twice as large as for food crops and increases by 1.8 times the rate for food crops. Crops harvested for direct food consumption have had the lowest yields above all measured values ​​and the lowest rate of improvement.

Grow more food that feeds the hungry

What does this mean to reduce hunger? We estimate that by 2030, the world will be harvesting enough calories to feed its estimated population – but it will not use most of these crops for direct food consumption.

According to our analysis, 48 ​​countries will not produce enough calories within their borders to feed their population. Most of these countries are located in sub-Saharan Africa, but they also include Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan and Caribbean countries such as Haiti.

Researchers and agricultural experts have worked to increase the productivity of food crops in countries where many people are malnourished, but the gains so far have not been enough. There may be ways to persuade richer nations to grow more food crops and divert extra production to malnourished countries, but this would be a short-term solution.

My colleagues and I believe that the broader goal should be to grow more crops in food-insecure countries that are used directly as food, and to increase their yields. Eliminate poverty, The UN’s main objective for sustainable development, will also enable countries that can not produce enough food to meet their domestic needs to import it from other suppliers. Without more focus on the needs of the world’s malnourished people, eliminating hunger will remain a distant goal.

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