Is hunger merely a food distribution problem?

From my book, Hunger Math: Among organizations that address the world hunger issue, it is often asserted that hunger is merely a food distribution problem. The world agricultural system, they claim, already produces sufficient food for the current world population of 7 billion persons. apple-handsAll that is needed is equitable distribution. But is this assertion, which is typically presented without basis, true? Is the main or sole cause of world hunger the unfair distribution of food?

According to the analysis already presented in this book, the world agricultural system produces sufficient kilocalories, from the top 50 or so staple crops, to feed 10 billion persons: 1.044E+16 kilocalories. If we allot an average daily intake of 2740 kcal/day to each person, the yearly caloric intake per person is 1 million kcal (1.0E+6). One billion persons (1.0E+9) times one million kcal/year equals 1.0E+15 kcal/year. The top 50 staple crops produce just over ten times that amount, so there are sufficient kcal for 10 billion persons being produced each year by the world agricultural system. So there is some basis for asserting that the world produces enough food for the current population of 7 billion.

However, when we take a closer look at the types of food produced and their macronutrient content, a serious problem arises. The human body needs more than mere calories. The total daily caloric intake, for survival and good health, must be distributed among the three macronutrients in certain proportions. Earlier in this book, I proposed a simplification of the recommended intake of macronutrients: 55% of calories from carbohydrates; 30% from fat; 15% from protein. A person can still be healthy with a diet that strays from those simplified and idealized numbers. But too little of any one or more macronutrients can be unhealthy (or even fatal).

A population of 7 billion persons needs 7.0E+15 kcal/year. And if those calories are divided among the three macronutrients according to the above proportions (55/30/15), then the world agricultural system would need to produce at least the following amounts of each macronutrient, according to its caloric value:

Macronutrients Needed by 7 Billion Persons
Carbs: 3.85E+15 kcal/year
Fat: 2.10E+15 kcal/year
Protein: 1.05E+15 kcal/year
Total: 7.00E+15 kcal/year

That the top 50 staples crops can be used to characterize the total production of the world agricultural system is proven in chapter two of this book. But when we analyze the macronutrient content of those 50 crops, there is too much carbohydrate, barely enough protein, and too little fat.

Macronutrients Provided by World Staple Crops
Carbs: 7.31E+15 kcal/year
Fat: 1.82E+15 kcal/year
Protein: 1.31E+15 kcal/year
Total: 1.044E+16 kcal/year

The world agricultural system produces enough carbs for 13 billion persons, enough protein for 8.7 billion persons, and enough fat for only 6.0 billion persons. And, given the fact that some nutrients are lost as the food moves from field to table, even the level of protein production is probably insufficient.

So the assertion that world hunger is solely or mainly a distribution problem is untrue. One of the main causes of world hunger is the excessive production of carbs and the insufficient production of protein and especially dietary fat. If not enough dietary fat is being produced, then distribution cannot end world hunger. No matter how many carbs you eat, you will still be in a state of hunger (chronic undernourishment) without sufficient protein and fat. And, as a matter of fact, my analysis of the data on macronutrient intake from the FAO Hunger reports of 2008 and 2012 (see chapter 1) shows that hunger is essentially a lack of protein and fat, not (in most cases) a lack of carbs.

However, as concerns protein and fat, equitable distribution of foods high in these macronutrients is admittedly one part of the hunger problem. The protein produced by the world agricultural system is, in theory, enough for 7 billion persons. Yet hunger is characterized partly by insufficient protein the diet. And while the one billion hungry lack dietary fat, 1.5 to 2 billion persons in the world consume an unhealthy excess of fat. Inequitable distribution of macronutrients is part of the hunger problem, but not its main cause.


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