How much is enough?

Hunger, obesity, waste – it’s a conundrum. At the same time as getting reports of hunger and food insecurity, we hear that obesity is an increasing global health problem. And even as we learn of drought-stricken fields and overharvested fisheries, we are told that vast quantities of food are being wasted between the field and the fork. It just doesn’t seem to add up.

In fact, we do produce enough food to feed everyone. At the moment, the world generates more than 4,000 calories per person per day, although the average that reaches consumers is around 2,800 calories per day. The USA has the highest average at 3,770 calories per person per day, whereas in India it is 2,300 per day. Only in three of the world’s countries do people have less than the internationally agreed minimum for a healthy and productive life of around 1,800 calories a day.

‘However you look at it, the fundamental role of food is to provide energy and nutrients to allow the body and brain to function. Beyond this, ‘how much is enough’ becomes highly subjective. ‘When a person’s basic needs have been met, economic, cultural and social factors become priorities, and this shifts the focus on food to a means of personal satisfaction rather than nutrition. With rising affluence and the myriad of food choices available in most countries, the possibility of food consumption exceeding safe physiological limits has become a reality, to the detriment of an individual’s survival and to overall food security in the long term.

‘From an ecocentric standpoint, although individuals are significant, the wider world, or ecosphere, is of greater importance, as we humans are only part of the Earth system. So we must remember we are also eating for the health of the planet.’

So why do people go hungry? The problem is uneven distribution and access, within countries as well as between them. Almost a billion people live without the food they need to thrive, and everywhere those truly at risk from hunger are the poor, as well as victims of catastrophes. The rural poor tend to be subsistence farmers in developing countries subject to drought, pestilence and erosion, often with no access to electricity, clean drinking water or sanitation, and with little or no health care or education services. In cities, the urban poor lack the money to buy food and produce none of their own. Such poverty knows no national boundaries: even in the USA, more than 50 million people, that’s twice the population of Malaysia or three times that of the Netherlands, experience food insecurity or lack access to proper nutrition.

Hunger is real enough now, and climate change, depleted agricultural resources and overfished oceans all threaten future food security – something we must pay attention to as the world’s human population continues to grow.

Waste not, want not

And then there’s waste. In general, up to half of all food produced is lost. Due to poor storage, packaging and processing, 1.3 billion tones of food perish between the field and the plate – and that’s not to mention what consumers, that’s you and me, throw away in leftovers and unused food. At what point in the production, processing and distribution chain the waste happens varies from place to place. In industrialized countries large amounts are wasted by consumers, while in the developing world, proportionally more waste happens between the farm and the consumer.

It all amounts to a complex problem that will require thoughtful, systemic and systematic change. The world must find a way to value and distribute the food we have more equitably, while taking care of the ecosystems that provide it.

By Ramanathan Thurairajoo, Singapore

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