What's Left to Eat?

Food and Water: Enough for Everyone?

Many people blame overpopulation for world hunger. But that's too simple. The causes of hunger, and related food and water shortages are varied and complex. The good news: We can do something to address these problems.

Figures from the UN Population Fund show a stark divide between the well-fed and the hungry. Imagine all the meat and fish eaten on Earth during a single day. The richest 1.2 billion people eat 45 percent of it. The poorest 1.2 billion get just 5 percent.

E02_side1_125x81 The world's appetite for meat has quadrupled during the past 50 years. Source: USDA

Not surprisingly, hunger stalks the developing world—home to 80 percent of Earth's population. Asia, the largest and most populous continents, has 500 million undernourished people. Africa has 200 million. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 34 million Americans, including 13 million children, are underfed.


"Did you bring enough to share?" You've probably heard a teacher say that, when someone tries to sneak in a snack. Eating without sharing seems unfair. Yet on a global scale, that's just what people do.

World population is more than 6 billion and rising. The Food and Agriculture Organization, a part of the United Nations, reports that nearly 800 million people are undernourished. That means they get fewer than 2,200 calories of food a day, not enough to maintain basic health. This grim number could rise to 1.5 billion by 2010. And that's just counting calories. It's not taking into account the quality of the food people eat and whether or not it is providing enough nutrients for good health.

An additional 2 to 3 billion people lack sufficient micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in their diets.


A slice of apple pie provides a whopping number of calories—but few nutri<span>ents</span>. Source: USDA
A slice of apple pie provides a whopping number calories—but few nutrients. Calories and taste can add body weight, without contributing to overall good health. Source: USDA


Two billion people, furthermore, endure what is called food insecurity. They don't know from day to day whether they will have enough to eat.

It's easy to blame population growth and say the world just has too many people. Between 1960 and 2003, Earth's human population doubled so that today more than six billion people share our planet. This number could grow to about ten billion by 2050.

Yet while world population only doubled, world food production more than tripled. And the proportion of the world's population that is hungry is decreasing, just not fast enough. In fact, we grow enough to give each person 3,500 calories a day, more than most people need, depending on how active they are. Even many developing nations produce more than enough food for their people. Yet, three-quarters of the youngest (0-5 years) victims of hunger live in countries with food surpluses.

video_iconFour decades ago, the threat of massive starvation haunted China.
But today, Earth's most populous nation is an agricultural powerhouse.

Options: 56k | 220k (RealPlayer required)
Source: Journey to Planet Earth



Here are some key reasons why there is hunger in a world which produces enough food to go around:

  • POVERTY: Many people in both developed and developing countries just don't have enough money to buy food. More than two billion people—a third of Earth's population—live on less than two dollars a day.
  • POOR EDUCATION OF WOMEN: Food production and nutrition for the family are usually the woman's responsibility. Yet, throughout the world, women lack the power to make important decisions and improve conditions for their children.
  • WAR AND CIVIL UNREST: Armed conflict and unrest between and within countries can make it impossible for people to grow or get food. The village of Nzulu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a tragic—yet typical example. In 1994, waves of refugees fleeing civil war in nearby Rwanda flooded the village. Famished, the refugees ate everything—even seeds. That left the villagers with neither food nor the ability to raise new crops. Somehow the villagers survived, and in 1996 they grew a modest field of corn. Then came soldiers, who carried off the entire crop. At that point, the people of Nzulu gave up. They stopped farming and were forced to depend on food from relief organizations.


Stars mark major conflict sites on this map of Africa. Shading and stripes indicate areas with food problems. Source: United Nations
Stars mark major conflict sites on this map of Africa. Shading and stripes indicate areas with food problems.
Source: United Nations


  • Dorothea Lange's photograph of a destitute pea picker. Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service
    Dorothea Lange's photograph of a destitute pea picker—and mother of seven—in California became an icon for the Great Depression of the 1930s. Believing that President Herbert Hoover had failed to address the crisis, Americans voted him out of office. His successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, enacted sweeping reforms aimed at relieving misery.
    Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service
    ENVIRONMENT: Growing food depends on having the necessary natural resources—such as fertile soil, water, and good climate. In areas that lack these resources or where human actions have degraded the soil to a great degree, land can turn to wasteland and raising food there becomes impossible.
  • POLITICS: Some governments make feeding their people a priority, while others do not. Amartya Sen, a Nobel-winning economist, argues that massive starvation never occurs in a democracy. Why not? Because elected leaders who allowed such a disaster to occur would swiftly lose their jobs.
  • TRADE: Economic pressures, along with nudging from international agencies, can push farmers in poor countries into growing cash crops such as coffee or sugar for export rather than food for local consumption. This can force many small, local farmers out of business. Food may become scarcer and costlier. And if the price of cash crops should fall, the farmers could face personal financial disaster.

Other factors contributing to hunger—disease and natural disasters—also fuel food shortages. Yet, as we've seen, the real question isn't whether we can feed the world. It's whether we choose to create systems that will feed everyone in the world. Find myths about hunger and more at Food First.


Malnourished Nepalese child. Source: CDC
Jutting ribs and loose skin are signs that this Nepalese child is malnourished.
Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Lack of food means far more than hunger pangs. Without adequate food, people suffer from malnutrition, which impairs a body's ability to function. Results of malnutrition include weight loss, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and stunted growth in children. In severe cases, body fluids collect in the abdomen, giving the appearance of a fat belly. It's actually a sign of serious protein deficiency called kwashiorkor.

Malnutrition also weakens the immune system, making undernourished people much more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

If hungry children eventually get enough food, they may regain weight and some height. But malnutrition-related problems, such as mental deficiencies, may persist the rest of their lives.


The human thirst for water is even more important than our hunger for food. If you had to, you could survive several weeks without food. But you'd die after just a few days without water. The human body, after all, is more than 75 percent water. In addition, water is essential for transporting nutrients, controlling temperature, and carrying waste from the body.

So clearly, everyone needs clean water to survive. Getting it, though, is often harder than you might expect. Ninety-nine percent of Earth's water is salty, frozen, or buried deep underground. Even the remaining one percent isn't readily available as freshwater. The main sources of freshwater—rivers, lakes, and groundwater (wells)—aren't always near population centers. Much of our freshwater, moreover, has been polluted or wasted. And adequate rainfall is not distributed evenly throughout the world.

As a result, there's a fierce—and growing—demand for fresh water. During the 20th century, the human population tripled. Yet, the use of water has increased sixfold. What did we do with all that water? Agriculture gulped the bulk—70 percent. Another 20 percent went to industry, leaving 10 percent for drinking water, clothes washing, and other personal use.

Irrigation: Water pours into an Arkansas rice field. Source: National Resources Conservation Service
Irrigation: Water pours into an Arkansas rice field.
Source: National Resources Conservation Service

The double whammy of population growth and soaring demand for water has created a global water crisis. Forty percent of humankind lives in nations afflicted with water stress. One in five people lacks safe drinking water. India, to cite one example, has some 65,000 villages with no nearby source of water.

One of the most alarming results of Earth's water woes is aquifer depletion. That's the shrinking of our underground water supplies. Take Beijing, China, for example. In 1950, well there could tap water just five meters below the surface. Now the well would have to be fifty meters deep. Similar drawdowns are occurring throughout the world.

Modern well technology enables us to draw water from fossil aquifers that lie miles below the Earth's surface. But doing so is unsustainable because we take out water much faster than nature replenishes it. One way to reclaim water for human use is removing the salt from seawater—or desalinization. This process is currently too expensive for widespread use, but technological advances might someday make it more feasible.

Fortunately, there are ways to improve how we use the existing supply of usable water:

  • old-fashioned rainwater harvesting,
  • drip irrigation devices and other measures to conserve water used in agriculture,
  • using gray water—all household water except toilet water—to irrigate crops,
  • growing crops suitable to an areas's rainfall so less water is needed for irrigation,
  • choosing to eat foods that require less water to produce—eating grains directly, for example,
  • rather than grain-fed animal meat,
  • enhancing organic matter in soil to retain water, and
  • using certain crops to shade soil and reduce evaporation.


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