Questions & Answers

What's Left to Eat?

Do you have questions? Our experts have answers to some of your most frequently asked questions.

If people go hungry doesn't that simply mean that their country has too many people for the amount of food that they grow?

This is one of the great myths about hunger and malnutrition. If this were true, hunger would only exist in countries that are populated densely. But, Nigeria and Brazil—and even the United States—have huge numbers of hungry people and yet are huge exporters of food. Lack of access to food, not overpopulation, causes hunger.

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Why, then, are so many people hungry?

The problem is complicated. About half of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day. Even if the cost of food and other items is relatively low, compared to European countries or the U.S., these people often cannot afford enough nutritional food. The simplest way to end hunger is to fight poverty.

Government subsidies to farmers in developed countries can cause unfair competition with farmers in developing countries, often driving these farmers into poverty (and hunger). Countries must also invest in a distribution systems (roads and storage facilities) that can get food to the people who need it.

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Seventy percent of all of our fresh water goes towards agriculture. Is this a problem?

Almost 97% of the Earth's water is salt water. It contains so many minerals that people (and animals) cannot drink it. Plants cannot use it either. Desalinization, the process of removing the salt, is expensive and time-consuming. Most of the non-salty or fresh water, furthermore, is frozen at the North and South poles. No one knows how much of the Earth's water was salty millions of years ago, or exactly what effect changes such as global warming will have on the availability of fresh water. And, fresh water is not always close to where people are, especially as cities grow. We need to plan for how to use the water we do have for agricultural, industrial, and personal use.

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Isn't soil just another name for dirt? Why do some people worry about it? Isn't it just found everywhere?

Soil is living. It's a biological community, composed of humus, sand, clay, and silt. Healthy soil has lots of organic matter, which consists of dead and rotting plants and animals. Good soil contains a rich variety of microbes and tiny animals that break up the organic matter, thus preparing rich nutrients for the growth of plants, trees, and shrubs. Healthy soil is dark and crumbly to the touch. Soil kits can be used to measure the presence of nutrients fundamental to plant health, including potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. It can take hundreds of thousands of years for an inch of rich topsoil to form, which careless farming can deplete in just a few growing seasons. It takes care to keep soil from eroding, washing away all its nutrients. Healthy soil is vital for growing food, trees, shrubs, and flowers.

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Isn't irrigation good because it "makes the desert bloom?"

Irrigation is a good thing when it is used wisely and does not cause environmental harm. Unfortunately, irrigation water contains salts that are left behind as irrigation water evaporates. These salts build up slowly until the soil becomes too salty for most plants to grow. Irrigation, furthermore, can use water so rapidly that it depletes our supply.

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Can we ever run out of fresh water?

The amount of fresh water on Earth never changes. What does change is the number of people on Earth and the way we use this water. Water use per person (mostly for irrigation to grow food) is increasing at a faster rate than the overall growth of Earth's population. And when we pollute water with pesticides and fertilizers used to grow crops, we are also reducing the amount of clean fresh water.

If we are wise about how we use water for agriculture (our largest use of fresh water) and for other purposes, we will help make sure that we have enough fresh water to go around. Growing crops that are well matched to an area's climate and rainfall, and thus don't need a great deal of extra watering, is one way to cut down on the demand for irrigation.

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Why is so much of America's fresh produce grown in the Midwest and California?

Access to irrigation water is a big factor in creating agricultural regions. The Ogallala Aquifer (sometimes called a "fossil aquifer" because much of its water has been sitting underground for 10,000 - 25,000 years) makes agriculture in the Midwest possible. The Ogallala irrigates at least one-fifth of all U.S. cropland. The water in this aquifer is being used much faster than nature replaces it. California farming leans heavily on the Colorado River and the huge infrastructure that diverts its water hundreds of miles to farm fields. Without irrigation, the type of agriculture practiced in the Midwest and California would be impossible.

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What is the difference between the terms "genetically modified" (GM) and "genetically engineered" (GE)?

Many people use the two phrases to mean the same thing. Scientists have now started to use "genetically engineered" to describe recently-devised techniques that move genetic material from one living thing to another (sometimes across species) in ways that could never occur without human intervention.

They use "genetically modified" to describe all human-designed changes to an organism, including genetic engineering and traditional plant and animal breeding. Traditional breeding of plants and animals involves influencing the inheritance of genes from one generation to the next in a way that could occur in nature. Historically, for example, farmers have used pollen from one variety of apple to pollinate another variety, thus combining the traits of the two.

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Many people are concerned about the safety of GE/GM foods. Are they safe to eat?

Genetically engineered foods worry some people because they use new technologies whose safety has not yet been fully tested. While GE foods are still the subject of extensive study and no short or long-term negative health effects have been found, there is much uncertainty about the potential environmental and health effects of GE crops. For this reason, many people are cautious about the technology and what it might be doing to our food and what our food is doing to us.

One problem is that we don't always know that we are buying or eating GE food. For this reason, labeling these items would help people make informed choices, at least until GE food has been fully tested for safety.

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If people have been altering plants and animals since the beginning of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, why all the fuss?

Genetic engineering alters plants and animals in ways that humans have never done before. It transfers genetic material across species, which could never occur in nature. At this point, no one knows for certain what environmental or human health effects this may have.

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News reports have featured many stories about the positives and negatives of eating fish. What are the health benefits of eating fish, what are some of the health risks from eating too much of certain types of fish, and who is most at risk?

Fish is a good source of protein, low in saturated fats (the kind that contribute to increased heart disease). Fatty types of fish such as tuna and salmon contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which protect against heart attacks by lowering cholesterol levels and preventing unwanted blood clotting.

There are new concerns about the risk of eating certain fish that contain high levels of a particular form of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxin, and other contaminants that are highly toxic to humans. Fish that are older and larger have had more time to bioaccumulate higher levels of these toxins. Swordfish and shark, for example, contain high levels of mercury. Wild salmon, catfish, and shellfish are among the species with the lowest mercury levels in their flesh.

Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children are most at risk from mercury in fish. Find more facts about fish and mercury levels, and guidelines for what is safe to eat at EPA.

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Is the ocean running out of seafood?

About two-thirds of the major fish species in the world are in decline. Worldwide, people catch nearly five times as many wild fish now as they did in 1950. About one-third of this catch is wasted—thrown back dead or dying into the sea—because those species are not highly valued in the marketplace.

In certain ways, we have become almost too good at fishing. Huge nets, fish-finding devices, and other technology cause fish to be captured faster than they can replenish their stock by reproducing. Illegal fishing also contributes to limited fish stock. There are other ways, such as strict controls over catch, that provide this vital food while maintaining a sound environmental approach.

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If we raise more fish on farms, won't that mean that we'll be using up fewer wild fish?

Not necessarily. Fish farms or aquaculture often use fish caught in the wild to feed their "domesticated" fish stock. Mackerel and anchovies, for instance, are netted in huge amounts to help feed farmed fish. It takes nearly four pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon and six pounds to produce some types of ocean fish.

There is some good news. Farmed fish such as carp, catfish, and tilapia—all three of which are natural plant-eaters—receive smaller numbers of wild fish in their feed and, therefore, allow the wild fish population to replenish itself.

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Why is "sustainability" important? Why do we need to be concerned about it and what will happen if we are not?

If we use up our natural resources faster than nature can replace them, future generations will find it difficult to live. Using fresh water, fertile soil, and other non-renewable resources is like taking money out of a bank. If you take out more than you put back in, sooner or later you find yourself in trouble.

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Farmers today are growing more food than ever before, so why do some people say that what they're doing is wrong?

Today, industrial farming methods produce big harvests in the short term, but they also deplete the very resources that future generations will need to continue producing. Industrial agriculture disrupts and depletes the soil with synthetic fertilizers; uses too much water for irrigation; poisons the soil and water with synthetic pesticides that linger in the environment; and relies on expensive distribution systems.

These are called "hidden costs." They are easy to ignore until the problems they cause become increasingly obvious. These costs are referred to as hidden because they are not included in the price of food. How can we put a monetary value on lost topsoil or the value of water in an aquifer that can't be replenished—or even the real cost in terms of air and water pollution, and of using fossil fuels to power farm machinery and produce synthetic pesticides and fertilizers?

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What do traditional ways of growing food have to teach us?

Traditional farming methods take advantage of natural pesticides and fertilizers, make efficient use of water, and use far less energy than does modern, industrial agriculture. Sustainable agricultural methods build upon these traditional techniques. Traditional rice production in Asia, for example, produces between 10 and 50 times as much food energy as it uses in energy inputs, while large-scale U.S. farms require two calories of energy to produce every one calorie of eggs, and 10-15 calories for every calorie of beef.

Any system that requires more energy input than what it produces in food energy is, by its nature, unsustainable. The only thing that makes these inefficient systems possible in the short term is our large storehouse of fossil fuel, which cannot be replenished and is being used up very quickly. Additionally, our food system uses up even more energy when it processes our food and has to transport it over great distances. For example, it requires 3,065 kilocalories (kcal) of energy to bring a one-pound can of corn to your kitchen, which provides only 375 kcal of food energy. In other words, the ratio of energy input to food energy output is very high, at about 8:1.

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Why are there fewer varieties of apples today than 100 years ago, and why is this important?

Large seed companies sell most of their seeds to large-scale growers. These growers prefer fruit and vegetables that look appealing, can be shipped long distances without bruising, and stay fresh for long periods of time.

Farming today, with its factory-approach to production and the mass marketing of produce, offers fewer varieties of most fruits and vegetables. This could become a serious problem because as more pests and weeds become resistant to chemicals, plant breeders will need to find varieties that have pest and weed resistance. If these varieties have become extinct, their traits will be extinct, too. This is why seed banks play an important role in preserving a wide range of varieties of each fruit or vegetable. But, it is also important for farmers and gardeners to help preserve the varieties that have disappeared from commercial catalogs.

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I don't live near a farm, so how can I help?

Learn as much as possible about where your food comes from, how it is grown, and by whom. Read food labels. Talk to farmers at your local outdoor market or people in your school cafeteria. Follow the issue on websites, in newspapers, and magazines. Try growing food in your own backyard, and talk to your teachers about starting a garden at your school or growing some food in your classroom (e.g., lettuces, sprouts, tomatoes).

Talk to your family about joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) if one exists near you. Introduced in Europe in the 1980s, a CSA is a community of individuals who supports a farm operation so that the farmland becomes the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risk and benefits of food production. Click here to find a CSA in your area of the U.S.

Support the movement toward sustainable agriculture by buying food that is local or organic. Buy from local farmers' markets. Give your business to restaurants or grocery stores that sell locally grown fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products. Encourage produce managers to stock locally grown fruits and vegetables at your grocery store. Do the same at your school cafeteria. This can go a long way in supporting local farming efforts and encouraging students to think about which foods offer the most energy and highest nutritional benefits. Talk to others about what you have learned and what you can do together.

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