How to Feed the World Part I: Framing An Urgent Question

Editor’s Note

Stray Dog Institute approaches food system transformation from our central concern for reducing the suffering of farmed animals. We will explore global discourses of food system change through this multi-part article series examining the prospects for a just, sustainable, plant-forward food system that serves the world’s future needs.

Part I of the series compares two approaches to the question of how to feed the world and examines the goals that should drive food system transition. Part II of the series will explore the broad benefits of sustainable agriculture, the values and structures that need to underpin it, and why the “yield gap” between conventional and sustainable food production is a misleading way to look at the choices. Part III of the series will investigate the pros and cons of the most promising scalable approaches to sustainable food production, focusing on benefits for the animals, people, and the environment.

What is the optimal way to feed the world’s growing population in the years ahead? How best to ensure agricultural output sufficient for human needs within the limits of planetary resources is the topic of vigorous debate within international public health, agricultural economics, environmental protection, global food commerce, and government policymaking.

Every day, the question becomes more urgent. The coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and political conflict have dramatically worsened world hunger since 2019. More people died of hunger in 2020 than of COVID-19.[1] By 2030 the number of undernourished people could reach 909 million, the UN projects, compared with its pre-Covid scenario of about 841 million.[2]

Underlying these recent developments are even deeper forces that are on pace to further escalate the hunger challenge. The global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, 2 billion more people than today.[3] Meanwhile, extreme weather events and environmental degradation threaten the existing agricultural system. Widespread food insecurity, severe harms to human health, and normalized animal mistreatment in conventional food production increasingly demand a moral reexamination of the current food system.

TWO WAYS TO LOOK AT THE QUESTION

Two views of how to feed the world have become prominent. One version is rooted in a productivist perspective, put forth by the industrial agriculture system that currently dominates global food production. The productivist framing typically poses the question as, “How much more food is needed to feed the projected population of 9 billion in 2050?”[4] This portrays the issue as a need to increase yield. Agribusiness companies have a long track record of increasing crop yields in search of ever-higher profit margins. To solve the challenges ahead, they generally plan to intensify their existing industrial models. For example, they propose to apply biotechnology and gene editing to develop modified crops more resistant to climate change, further improve cost-efficiency in farming and food supply-chains, and develop new synthetic pesticides and herbicides to counter developing resistance among crop pests.

While providing enough calories for future humans is certainly a crucial part of the picture, a growing body of research shows the question of how to do so on a global level cannot be answered in isolation from numerous other, equally vital questions—especially what kinds of food to produce, how to improve food access equity, and how to stop the tremendous environmental and health damages generated by the current food system.

Informed by these perspectives, the second version of the question involves a structural approach. The structural framing typically poses the question in ways similar to “How can the global food system nourish the world justly and sustainably?” This framing and others like it arise from the contributions of an expanding population of scholars, NGOs, activists, litigators, policymakers, farmers, and consumers. These varied stakeholders understand that agribusiness’ immense harms to humans, animals, and the environment are unsustainable, and significant transformation is needed if the world is to be adequately fed without harmful externalities. In this perspective, feeding the world involves a suite of interwoven issues.

Fairly evaluating these opposing visions requires exploring deeper questions:

  • What kinds of food should be produced, and in what relative quantities?
  • How can food be equitably and affordably distributed?
  • What natural resource limits constrain food production, and how must food production change to adapt to climate change?
  • How can the food system ensure benefits for all stakeholders, rather than focusing first and foremost on producing economic gain for food corporations?

The productivist and structural framings lead to very different answers. Global food system discourses must recognize the importance of perspective choices embedded in how food system problems are framed, and the societal impact of the future solutions they generate.

WHAT GOALS SHOULD THE FOOD SYSTEM PURSUE?

Building an optimal food system requires revisiting the assumptions behind the current system, and asking: “What goals would a truly sustainable, environmentally and socially constructive food system pursue?”

Industrial agriculture has one key strength: its ability to produce and distribute consistently high yields of select standardized plant and animal products that generate profits for those able to reap economies of scale. No other food-production system has yet matched agribusiness’ efficiency at this limited set of tasks. Over the last half-century, industrial food producers have learned to optimize production efficiency with a multi-pronged strategy of low crop diversity, synthetic fertilizers, industrial agrichemicals, genetically modified seeds, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that house a narrow range of highly bred animal species. Substantial government subsidies have greatly reduced, and continue to reduce, research and promotion costs for these efforts. In the US, for instance, over 98% of USDA research funding goes toward conventional crops under industrial cultivation and industrial animal models.[5] 

Agribusinesses are corporations focused on maximizing profits for their owners and, in most cases, shareholders. This restricts the industry to a narrow focus on maximum food quantity at the lowest possible production cost—even when the world faces extraordinary exigencies, such as the coronavirus. This priority became starkly clear in the first half of 2020, when the world’s eight top food companies paid out $18 billion to their shareholders even as the pandemic caused global hunger to spike.[6]

To achieve its core goals—maximum quantity, minimum costs, maximum returns—the industry has resorted to externalizing massive unaccounted costs. These many externalities are now becoming more widely known to the public: contamination of land, air, and water; severe threats to human health; inhumane treatment of animals; soil degradation and erosion; egregious food waste; biodiversity loss, and some of the highest greenhouse gas emissions of any industry.[7]  

Industrial animal farming also generates significant socioeconomic harms, including erosion of local economies,[8] severe health impacts, the entrenchment of rural poverty, and perpetuation of race and class divides.[9] Inequitable access to food is intrinsic to the model: wealthier consumers enjoy abundant meat, dairy products, and fresh produce, while lower-income—especially BIPOC[i]—communities live in a state of “food apartheid,” unfairly targeted by processed-food marketing and denied equal access to nutritious options.

Industrial agriculture’s limitations offer a valuable benefit: by illuminating the failures of a profit-driven model, they highlight what a sustainable system needs to include. A broad scientific consensus has formed behind the need for whole-system transformation of food and agriculture. Unfortunately, while the agribusiness model has had decades of dominance to demonstrate and refine its food production methods, its pervasive animal abuse, profit-centric goals, brittle supply chains, defenselessness against climate change impacts and superweeds, and persistent nutritional shortfalls for hundreds of millions[10] show that agribusiness cannot adequately feed the world through their model of intensive production of commodity foods.

The structural approach to feeding the world finds that—instead of maximizing profits for powerful multinational corporations and their shareholders—a sustainable food system should prioritize the common good. It should provide adequate, healthy, nutritious diets for all humans. Instead of hollowing out farming economies, it should support farmer autonomy, sustainable livelihoods, and vibrant local economies. It should protect the wellbeing of animals by reducing or eliminating their exploitation. It should protect biodiversity and promote climate resilience.

Rather than focusing on increasing quantities produced, adding structural critiques of the agribusiness framing of feeding the world leads to a new central question with expanded awareness: “How can the food system produce sufficient, affordable diets for all; distribute its products equitably and efficiently; be a responsible user of natural resources and a positive contributor to ecosystems and the climate; ensure adequate livelihoods for food-system workers; and avoid harming animals?”

THE COMPLEXITIES OF HOW MUCH FOOD IS NEEDED

A structural analysis agrees with the productivist view that food production needs to be increased to fulfill the needs of a growing global population. But it also perceives that the access and consumption structures of the current system are key to its problems and that transforming these structures could greatly reduce the additional quantities of food needed.

Access as a Factor in Food Needs

Hunger is largely a consequence of economic and social exclusion, not of producing too little food. The global calorie supply is ample: even after industrial agriculture diverts about half of the world’s grain and most soy protein to animal feed and non-food uses, the world still produces enough food to provide every human being with nearly 2,900 calories a day.[11]

Yet malnutrition in all its forms, from obesity to undernutrition, is the leading cause of poor health globally.[12] In 2021, the UN estimated 957 million people across 93 countries lacked adequate food—a sharp rise from 820 million in 2019 due to the economic and logistical disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerating climate change, and increased political conflict. Even in the US, with its vast agricultural output and high incomes, one in six people are food-insecure.[13] BIPOC communities are particularly vulnerable; for example, Black Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely than their white counterparts to have insufficient access to enough food for a healthy life.

The world’s eight top food companies paid out $18 billion to their shareholders even as the pandemic caused global hunger to spike. Instead of maximizing profits for powerful multinational corporations and their shareholders, a sustainable food system should prioritize the common good.

Why are hunger and malnutrition so pervasive in the face of abundance? Part of the answer is that unwholesome industrial meats and processed foods are produced at scale and marketed inexpensively to consumers (helped by government subsidies), while vegetables and non-industrial goods with improved nutritional profiles are unsubsidized or produced at smaller scales, making them harder to find and more expensive. Billions of people cannot afford nutritious foods (which in turn generates healthcare costs projected by the UN to reach $1.3 trillion in 2030). In lower-income countries, lack of transport and refrigeration infrastructure constrains the ability of centralized industrial agriculture models to meet local food needs; many leading agricultural producer countries with high domestic hunger rates also export much of their agricultural production to wealthier nations rather than making it available to local populations.

Waste is another factor in hunger. An estimated one-third of all food globally and 40% in the US is wasted. In economically disadvantaged farming regions, the lack of reliable power infrastructure and refrigeration technologies contributes to some fresh crops going to waste. In wealthier farming regions, on-farm waste is often due directly to agribusinesses’ operational and economic structures, such as economic pressures on farmers to destroy crops they can’t sell, or afford to harvest, because of labor shortages, contract cancellations, or supply chain failures.[14] In the current system, a US farmer pays more to donate a crop to local food banks than to destroy it.[15]

Threading through all these issues is unequal consumer access to food, which is closely tied to income inequality both within and between countries. In the productivist paradigm, international trade and foreign aid are relied on to fill gaps in countries’ food access; however, both aid and trade are incomplete solutions that harm local agricultural systems while leaving poorer citizens vulnerable to the vicissitudes of global food prices, supply chain disruptions, and the governmental and industry power structures that control trade, distribution, and aid.[16] US food aid, in particular, has historically often been tied to US agribusiness, disempowering recipient populations[17] and making aid more expensive and slower to arrive.[18] If access inequity is not rectified, hunger will continue no matter how much food is grown.

Industrial farming is not feeding the world now, let alone in the future. In 2019, 17% of the world’s population, or 1.3 billion people, lacked regular access to “nutritious and sufficient food.”[19] Nor will the agribusiness model be able to meet the food needs of 2050: research has revealed that yield intensification of any amount will not be enough to ensure global food security in 2050, unless consumption patterns also change significantly[20]—especially toward less consumption of meat and animal products, a shift that industrial agriculture currently shows no interest in making.

Consumption as a Factor in Food Needs

Agribusiness’s productivist perspective generally assumes that intensifying its current model of cheap, mass-produced animal products and monocrops will serve the world’s future food needs. The structural view, however, finds that the kinds of food produced and consumed also urgently need to change.

In particular, reduced production and consumption of animal products—meat, dairy, and eggs—would significantly advance all the goals of a sustainable food system.

Environmentally, overwhelming evidence shows that no matter what other strategies are pursued, reduced meat and dairy consumption are essential to keeping global temperature rise below the current target of 2°C.[21] One 2019 study found that diets that reduce meat, dairy, saturated fats, and sodium in favor of more plant proteins, grains, and fiber generate four-fifths fewer GHG emissions than meat-heavy diets.[22]

Industrial farming is not feeding the world now, let alone in the future. In 2019, 17% of the world’s population, or 1.3 billion people, lacked regular access to sufficient nutritious food. Yield intensification of any amount will not be enough to ensure global food security in 2050 without drastically lower consumption of meat and animal products.

Nutritionally, reduced consumption of animal products in developed countries would save millions of lives and billions in healthcare dollars. Overconsumption of animal protein contributes to kidney and liver disorders, increased risk of cancer and heart disease, and bone disorders.[23] Eliminating meat consumption in these nations could save 7.3 million lives per year; avoiding all animal products could save as many as 8.1 million lives.[24]

Finally, circling back to the question of food quantity, industrially farmed animals (i.e., those raised in confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs) require grain-based feeds. This diverts cropland away from growing food for humans and is part of the reason industrial agriculture fails to feed the world despite high yields. Currently, over one-third of all the grain grown worldwide is used to feed animals. If global crop production were shifted away from animal feed and other non-food uses, it would free up resources to produce 70% more calories annually—potentially feeding up to 4 billion more people.[25]

CAN SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE FEED THE WORLD?

Numerous alternative agricultural models exist that seek to eliminate the negative impacts of industrial food production by maintaining a high standard of environmental and social responsibility throughout the food supply chain. But significant questions remain. How economically and operationally viable are these models? Do they benefit all stakeholders in the food system? Can sustainable agriculture be scaled to meet global food needs, and if so, how quickly? What role will animals play in a sustainable food system? Are the environmental benefits of sustainable food production worth the probability of lower yields than industrial agriculture provides—and can those yield gaps be closed?

CHANGING THE PARADIGM

Critically, US policymakers and the public need to understand the harsh impacts of industrial agriculture—and that alternative models are available and urgently need to be developed and scaled. Funders can support NGOs that focus on changing the public narrative around food and agriculture as a means to expose the harms of industrial agriculture. Voters need to put their support behind candidates who see the importance of agricultural transformation.

One of the most effective levers for agricultural transformation is likely to be subsidy change.[26] Current government subsidies reward the industrialized agricultural model that harms rural economies, the environment, and Americans’ diets. Public funds that increase the power of agribusiness must be restructured, and research monies diverted to testing and optimizing sustainable approaches—the kind of support and improvement industrial agriculture has enjoyed for decades.

Elected officials can get behind the growing movement to place a moratorium on new or expanding confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and to place restrictions on overall GHG emissions from large CAFOs.[27] State legislators should put funds toward incentivizing smaller farms that produce diverse plant foods for healthy diets.

Numerous knowledge gaps exist around transitioning to sustainable food production. Researchers can aid understanding of how to effectively encourage consumers to eat sustainably, including by reducing meat consumption, as well as helping policymakers and food companies understand how to develop financial, logistical, and cultural structures that support sustainable consumer choices. To achieve change at a systems level—besides governments reforming subsidies—food companies, thought leaders, and health authorities play a role in making it easier for consumers to make sustainable choices.[28]

THE Potential OF FOOD Systems CHange

Current trends (growing hunger exacerbated by climate change and the lingering economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, rapid expansion of industrial agriculture and its harms, promotion of meat consumption, worsening access for low-income populations, etc.) point to an increasingly desperate and far-reaching food crisis if systemic interventions are not initiated soon. On the very bright side, the unique intersection of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) structures and issues connected to the food system make it perhaps society’s greatest arena for positive change. Thoughtful strategic changes to how food is produced, distributed, and consumed can enable substantial simultaneous benefits for all aspects of life on earth.


[i] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.


[1] “Six-Fold Increase in People Suffering Famine-Like Conditions Since Pandemic Began,” press release, Oxfam, July 9, 2021, https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/six-fold-increase-people-suffering-famine-conditions-pandemic-began.

[2] Megan Durisin, Elizabeth Rembert, and Tatiana Freitas, “A Tenth of the World Could Go Hungry While Crops Rot in Fields,” Bloomberg.com, August 30, 2020, www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-08-31/hunger-is-threatening-to-kill-more-people-than-covid-this-year?sref=PNswn24w.

[3] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “World Population Prospects 2019, Online Edition,” August 2019, https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Population.

[4] “In 4 Charts: The Past, Present and Future of Food Security,” Cargill, n.d., https://www.cargill.com/story/in-4-charts-the-past-present-and-future-of-food-security.

[5] Liz Carlisle and Albie Miles, “Closing the Knowledge Gap: How the USDA Could Tap the Potential of Biologically Diversified Farming Systems,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 3, no. 4 (2013): 219–225.

[6] “The Hunger Virus: How COVID-19 Is Fueling Hunger in a Hungry World,” Oxfam Media Briefing, July 9, 2020, https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/research-publications/hunger-virus-how-covid-19-fueling-hunger-hungry-world/.

[7] GRAIN and IATP, “Emissions Impossible: How Big Meat and Dairy Are Heating up the Planet” (Minneapolis, MN: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, July 2018), www.iatp.org/emissions-impossible.

[8] Melanie J. Wender, “Goodbye Family Farms and Hello Agribusiness: The Story of How Agricultural Policy Is Destroying the Family Farm and the Environment,” Villanova Environmental Law Journal 22, no. 1 (2011): 29.

[9] Deborah N. Archer and Tamara C. Belinfanti, “We Built It and They Did Not Come: Using New Governance Theory in the Fight for Food Justice in Low-Income Communities of Color,” Seattle Journal of Social Justice 15 (2016): 307.

[10] See endnote 2.

[11] Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, “World Hunger: Ten Myths,” Food First Backgrounder, Institute for Food and Development Policy, Vol. 21., No. 2 (Summer 2015), https://foodfirst.org/publication/world-hunger-ten-myths.

[12] Boyd A. Swinburn, Vivica I. Kraak, Steven Allender, Vincent J. Atkins, et al., “The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change: The Lancet Commission Report,” The Lancet, P791–846 (February 23, 2019), https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/issue/vol393no10173/PIIS0140-6736(19)X0008-2.

[13] See endnote 11.

[14] Lisa K. Johnson et al., “Field Measurement in Vegetable Crops Indicates Need for Reevaluation of On-Farm Food Loss Estimates in North America,” Agricultural Systems 167 (November 1, 2018): 136–42, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2018.09.008.

[15] See endnote 2.

[16] See endnote 11.

[17] Jennifer Clapp, Hunger in the Balance: The New Politics of International Food Aid, Hunger in the Balance (Cornell University Press, 2012), https://doi.org/10.7591/9780801463938.

[18] See endnote 11.

[19] FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019: Safeguarding against Economic Slowdowns and Downturns (Rome: FAO, 2019), https://www.fao.org/3/ca5162en/ca5162en.pdf.

[20] Bojana Bajželj et al., “The Importance of Food Demand Management for Climate Mitigation,” Nature Climate Change 4, no. 10 (2014): 924–929, https://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate2353.

[21] Fredrik Hedenus, Stefan Wirsenius, and Daniel J.A. Johansson, “The Importance of Reduced Meat and Dairy Consumption for Meeting Stringent Climate Change Targets,” Climatic Change 124, no. 1 (May 1, 2014): 79–91, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1104-5.

[22] Donald Rose et al., “Carbon Footprint of Self-Selected US Diets: Nutritional, Demographic, and Behavioral Correlates,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 109, no. 3 (March 1, 2019): 526–34, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy327.

[23] Marco Springmann et al., “Analysis and Valuation of the Health and Climate Change Cobenefits of Dietary Change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 15 (April 12, 2016): 4146–51, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1523119113.

[24] See endnote 23.

[25] Niki A. Rust et al., “How to Transition to Reduced-Meat Diets That Benefit People and the Planet,” Science of the Total Environment 718 (May 20, 2020): 137208, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.137208.

[26] See endnote 25.

[27] Shefali Sharma, Milking the Planet: How Big Dairy Is Heating Up the Planet and Hollowing Rural Communities (Minneapolis, MN: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, June 2020), www.iatp.org/milking-planet.

[28] See endnote 25.

About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

By Stray Dog Institute

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

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