26 January 2010

Food alert!

It's a brutal fact of life: when there is not enough food to go around, people will starve. Here are some fascinating facts on the history of food production.

It's a brutal fact of life: when there is not enough food to go around, people will starve. A recent news story states that SA food production is lagging behind population growth. No wonder food prices have rocketed in recent months.

Looking back at wars, famines and plagues, food shortages and starvation have been common throughout human history and there have been many grim predictions that gains in food production would not be able to keep pace with increases in population. The world population is growing by 86 million per year and the United Nations estimates that the total is already quite a bit over six billion people.

To date, through invention and innovation, man has managed to keep up. But there is a limit even to scientific ingenuity where food production is concerned.

Here are some fascinating facts on food production:

  • Agriculture is the world's largest economic sector. On a worldwide basis, more people are involved in agriculture than in all the other occupations combined. Agriculture employs over a third of the world's population, but only accounts for 5% of the world's gross domestic products (GDP).
  • For hundreds of thousands of years, people lived in hunter-gatherer communities. Collecting food was their major occupation and it involved everyone in the community.
  • Roughly 10 000 years ago people learnt how to domesticate animals and plants. This allowed humans to settle in communities and stop moving around.
  • Not everyone was needed to produce food, and other specialisations became commonplace, such as pottery-making, basket-weaving, military endeavours, building operations, to name but a few.
  • In the last century huge changes have been introduced to the world of agriculture: these include the use of fertilisers, the use of pesticides, mechanisation of farms and analysis of the needs of farm animals.
  • The genetic modification of crops and animals has also yielded increased production, but it remains controversial.
  • A hundred years ago, it took one American farmer to produce food for 2,5 people. By the end of the twentieth century, a single farmer could feed 130 people.
  • Today livestock production occupies 70% of all land used for agriculture, according to the United Nations.
  • It is predicted that the world population will reach over nine billion by 2050 and although the proportion that is hungry and malnourished is slowly declining, the absolute number is still increasing.
  • Today, the estimated number of people who are hungry and malnourished is around 830 million people, one quarter of them children below five years of age.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated January 2010)

Read more:
The food journey

(Sources: The European Food Information Council (


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