10 things you need to know about the global food system

There is enough food for everyone on the planet to lead a healthy and nutritious life, but the global food supply is deeply inequitable.

1. There's enough food for everybody

The most important thing to know about the global food system is also one of the least appreciated: there is enough food for everyone on the planet to live a healthy and nutritious life. In fact, the UN tells us that there is about 2,800 kcal per person per day available. But, the global food system is deeply inequitable. There are about 842 million people hungry on the planet, while at the same time there are about 1.5 billion who are overweight or obese.

2. Price volatility

The price of food is wildly volatile. In 2008, the United Nations Food Price Index almost doubled in less than a year before crashing in 2009. Prices then shot up again in 2010 and 2011. Despite this volatility, our supply of food stayed stable throughout this period. This suggests that the price of food is not determined by our ability to produce food at a global level.

3. One third of food is wasted

Approximately one third of the world's food is wasted before it is consumed (pdf). In the developed world most of the waste happens at the consumer end, when food spoils in grocery stores or in refrigerators. Most of the waste in the developing world happens on the farm as a consequence of inefficient storage and processing facilities.

4. Food for fuel

Not all food grown on our planet is being used as food. For instance, about 40% of the corn grown in the US is being turned into first-generation biofuels (pdf), such as ethanol. However, creating bioethanol only uses the sugar in the corn. This leaves a protein rich byproduct called dried distillers grain that can be fed to livestock.

5. Land buy ups

The landscape of who owns our food system is changing. Since 2008, more than 56m hectares of land (the size of France) has been purchased in the global south by international companies. Some believe that this represents meaningful foreign direct investment in places such as rural Africa. Others are worried that the companies are exploiting the land and labour of Africa to make rich countries to grow richer.

6. Corporate control

A very small number of corporations control the vast majority of the world's food trade: four companies produce more than 58% of the world's seeds; four global firms account for 97% of poultry genetics research and development; yet another four produce more than 60% of the agrochemicals farmers use.

7. Impact of agricultural policy

While we all know that people are eating more junk food, dairy and meat, we don't always appreciate that one of the causes of this rise is US governmental farm policy. In the early 1970s, the US started paying maize farmers to produce grain, resulting in overproduction. Between 1995 and 2012 maize subsidies totalled more than $84bn (£49.8bn). Enterprising farmers learned they could feed this extra to cows, pigs and chickens. This drove down the price of these produces and created the conditions for intensive livestock production. It was also discovered around this time that the sugars from corn could be removed and turned into high-fructose corn syrup. This has given rise to the junk food industry.

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