Published on: Last updated:

Today, 850 million people in the world are undernourished. Yet, the Earth produces enough food for everyone. At the same time, over 400 million people in the world are obese. Organic food, which is better for health and for the environment is attracting new customers fast but it is still unconventional.

World food production and undernourishment

In the world, almost 350 kilos of cereal are produced per person a year (1). If they were spread equally among all men, everybody would have enough to eat. According to Jean Ziegler (2), the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, farming can feed 12 billion human beings. We are only 6 billion but 854 million people in the world still do not have enough to eat (3).

Food aid

In 2007, the World Food Program (WFP) distributed 3.3 million tons of food to over 86 million people in 80 countries throughout the world. (4) If it is well handled, food aid helps populations. However, if it is not carefully undertaken, it can discourage local production meant for local consumption by making prices drop. The distribution of vast quantities of food aid can also make certain countries dependent on food imports. At the end of the 1950s, a third of corn grown for food aid came from the United States.

More and more obesity in the world

Whilst some of the world’s population is starving, part of it is overfed. In 2005, 400 million adults in the world were obese. In 2015, there could be 700 million of them (5). Obesity mainly occurs in developed or emerging countries (Brazil, India, and China) where the population adopts a similar way of life : a combination of a relatively sedentary way of life and a high fat and high sugar diet with a lot of meat. These are all contributing factors to obesity. The WHO has accused the food industry in industrialised countries of contributing to obesity by promoting products that contain too much fat, sugar or salt.

The food industry

The logic of the world economy means countries in the South prefer to farm money crops for export, once again at the expense of crops which produce food for local consumption and forests. This is the case of soy farming in Brazil, for example; it is meant for European cattle and chickens and it is destroying the Amazon rainforest but it does not cater for the local population’s needs. Moreover, countries whose farming is heavily subsidised (especially those in the European Union and the United States) sell their produce at lower prices than local produce in poor countries; this threatens local farming. This is the case of tomatoes grown in Europe and sold in Africa at a low price. At the WTO, the World Trade Organisation, these subsidies have been heavily criticized by developing countries who consider them to be protectionist measures to distort competition.

The risks

To appeal to consumers, the world’s food industry is increasingly using more food additives. These additives (flavourings, sweeteners, etc) are chemical products which enhance colour, taste and texture and extend the expiry date of products. Three hundred additives are currently allowed on the European market (8). And in 2007, the food industry spent about 25 billion dollars on food additives (9). Even if most of these additives are listed on the product’s label, aromatic substances are not because they are part of the « trade secrets » advocated by the food industry.

The European Union is still being cautious about how these additives could damage peoples’ health. For example, using the additive E425 konjac in jellified sweets was forbidden within the Union in 2003 because of a risk of suffocation, especially for children and old people (10).

Lastly, the genetically modified products used in food could also damage people’s health.

Organic food

Since the outbreak of mad cow disease in particular, (see the box) consumers are more worried about the quality of the food they eat. Different labels can guarantee that they are eating healthy products. Apart from « quality labels » (like the red label in France), there are specific labels for organic produce. In France, for example, the « AB » label for « Agriculture biologique » (Organic farming) guarantees that 95 % of the ingredients used to make the product are organic (11).

Organic products are considered to be better for your health than industrially-grown ones. Indeed, the latter contain fertiliser or pesticide residues which are dangerous for people’s health. In 2004, a survey by the General Directorate for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control showed that 43.8% of the fruits and vegetables they analysed contained residues of pesticide. Some of the levels exceeded the legal limit. (12)

Moreover, organic farming uses less fossil energy and does not strip soil. European regulations forbid the use of genetically modified organisms in organic farming.

The organic market : increasing demand

The demand for organic produce is increasing throughout the world. In 2006, there were organic farms in 120 countries and organic farming represented a 40 billion dollar market, that is to say 2% of world food sales (13). In 2012, this market should reach 70 billion dollars (14). In France, it increases by 10% a year (15). Some countries can no longer cope and have to rely on a lot of imports due to increasing demand for organic produce. Thus, in The United Kingdom, 75% of the organic food that is consumed is imported (16). Transporting organic produce over a long distance (especially by plane) uses a lot of energy and is therefore a source of CO2 emissions. This cancels out some of the environmental benefits.

Environmentalists are now interested in « food miles. This is the distance in kilometres the product and its components travel, from the moment it is made to the moment it reaches the consumer. A well-known example is the study undertaken in 1993 which showed that the different ingredients used to make a simple pot of strawberry yoghurt sold in a hypermarket in Stuttgart represented 9115 km in total! (Stefanie Böge – Wuppertal Institut, 1993) For countries which care about food miles, local consumption is the answer. These huge distances go hand in hand with supermarket distribution. Obviously, fresh produce imported from the other side of the world uses a lot of food miles.

Media Query: