A declaration that global food
production needs to double to feed the world by the middle of this
century provoked shock when it was announced by the UN food chief. It
has since become a founding pillar of food policy, cited by leading
British politicians and government scientists, farming leaders and some of the world's biggest agricultural companies.
the source of the now infamous statistic did not actually say that,
claims a new report by the Soil Association, the UK's leading organic
The study, entitled "The big fat lie about doubling food production", traced the original source of the doubling claim back to a report published by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2006.
using the FAO's own figures, the Soil Association says the forecast
increase needed in production would be closer to 70% by 2050.
FAO itself also warns that the figures are distorted by using food
prices: because meat and dairy products are worth more per weight, a
small increase in volume appears as a significantly bigger increase in
"production" measured in US dollars.
The differences between the
report and the claims has arisen because politicians and others have
used calculations from 2000, which are now a decade out of date, and
then rounded them up, said the Soil Association, which is worried that
the doubling figure is being used to push unsustainable
"In abusing the figures government
ministers and others are trying to exclude the possibility of us
producing food in a way that would be good for the planet and good for
our health," said Peter Melchett, the association's policy director.
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report also questions assumptions made in the FAO report concerning,
among other things, high levels of food waste and billions more people
eating western-style diets that are high in meat and dairy products,
which have been linked to obesity, diabetes and other health problems.
of assuming a ghastly starvation and obesity vision of the future, what
we need is food systems which feed everyone a healthy and decent diet,"
The Soil Association study follows criticisms last summer [June 2009] by MPs on the Environment Food and Rural Affairs select committee,
who warned that the forecasts were "projections rather than targets",
and should be used to draw attention to other policies issues such as
population growth, diet and waste. In its response in October 2009, the
government revealed that by recalculating the figures to begin from 2005-7,
food production demand growth would be lower - up to about 70% by 2050.
"The difference between 100% and 70% is not trivial: it is more than
the food production of the whole American continent," added the
government. "So claims around food production needing to increase
50-100% need to be treated with care."
Despite the government's
partial back-down, however, the doubling figure, and that for a 50%
increase by 2030, continue to be used by senior figures. Since October
the old figures have been quoted by the Conservative farming manifesto; the government chief scientist Professor John Beddington; former chief scientist Sir David King, who was advocating a "more open minded approach" to GM foods; and Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers Union
in the UK. The doubling figure was also quoted at a conference in
February by an executive at agri-chemical company Syngenta, according
to an article in Farmers Weekly; and appears on the website of Monsanto, the global GM giant.
purpose of the Soil Association report was to draw attention to the
misleading use of the figures, said Melchett. "We can start to have a
more sensible and open discussion about food and what farming systems
are going to be possible in 2030 or 2050 when oil has started to run
out and is very much more expensive, and how could greenhouse gases be
lower," he added.
A major international report in 2008 by hundreds of scientists and other experts, commissioned by the FAO and the World Bank,
also advocated a more varied response to feeding a growing population,
including diversification of farms and diets, more conservation schemes
on farms, reforming subsidies which encouraged unsustainable
agriculture, and promoting more healthy diets. The report, under an
organisation called the International Assessment of Agricultural
Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, was signed off by 58
countries including the UK, though the US, Australia and Canada only
accepted part of the findings.
The FAO report, World Agriculture
towards 2030/2050 says world food production growth would be
principally driven by rising populations, and trends towards eating
more calories and more meat and dairy products, especially in
developing countries. As a result, the FAO forecast an average 1.5% a
year growth in agricultural production by value from 1990 to 2030, and
then 0.9% a year for the following two decades to 2050.