Feeding 7 billion well

Published on: Last updated:

In April 2005, the World Food Programme and the Chinese government jointly announced that food aid shipments to China would stop after the end of the year. For a country where hundreds of millions of people were chronically hungry a generation ago, this was a landmark achievement. China’s success in largely eradicating hunger can be traced to the wholesale reduction in poverty associated with the eightfold expansion in its economy since the economic reforms of 1978 and the 50-percent jump in its grain harvest between 1977 and 1986. (1)

While hunger has been disappearing in China, it has been spreading in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Indian subcontinent. As a result, the number of people who are hungry has increased from a recent historical low of 820 million in 2000 to 852 million in 2002. (2)

One key to the threefold expansion in the world grain harvest since 1950 was the rapid adoption in developing countries of high-yielding wheats and rices developed in Japan and hybrid corn from the United States. The spread of these highly productive seeds, combined with a tripling of irrigated area and a ninefold increase in world fertilizer use, tripled the world grain harvest. Growth in irrigation and fertilizer use essentially removed soil moisture and nutrient constraints on crop yields in much of the world. (3)

But now the world’s farmers face enormous additional demand for farm products from the projected addition of some 70 million people a year, the desire by some 5 billion people to consume more livestock products, and the potential of millions of motorists turning to farm-produced fuel crops to supplement tightening supplies of gasoline and diesel fuel. On the supply side, farmers are faced with shrinking supplies of irrigation water, rising temperatures, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, rising fuel costs, and a dwindling backlog of yield-raising technologies. For those who like to be challenged, this is a good time to be a farmer or an agronomist. (4)


1. “Last Food Shipment Signals End of 25-Year WFP Aid to China,” Asian Economic News, 8 April 2005; U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, & Distribution, electronic database, updated 13 July 2005.

2. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004 (Rome: 2004), p. 6.

3. Thomas R. Sinclair, “Limits to Crop Yield,” paper presented at the 1999 National Academy Colloquium, Plants and Populations: Is There Time? Irvine, CA, 5–6 December 1998; FAO, FAOSTAT Statistics Database, with fertilizer use data updated 4 April 2005.

4. United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision (New York: 2005).

Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, Norton & Co., 2006

Media Query: