We Can Feed the World

How to fix the global food crisis.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Fall-2022-site-1500x1000
Fall-2022-site-1500x1000
Vasava illustration for Foreign Policy

Back in July, I had a revelatory conversation with Ertharin Cousin, the former head of the U.N. World Food Program. Most people think about the issue of hunger in the wrong way, she said. It’s not that there are too many people on the planet, as many of us assume; nor is the problem that we can’t make enough food. “If we embrace science and innovation,” Cousin said, “we can feed every person on this planet.”

Consider this issue an embrace of those principles—a collection of practical ideas for getting smarter about food production, making supply chains more efficient, and wasting less. We at Foreign Policy felt a sense of urgency about exploring this topic because feeding the planet has become even more critical lately. 

For a long time, the proportion of the world’s population affected by hunger stayed relatively stable, albeit unacceptably high: about 8 percent, according to the United Nations. Then COVID-19 struck. By the end of 2020, with supply chains broken and global trade clogged, that number had inched up to 9.3 percent. A year later, as the full impacts of pandemic-related shutdowns were realized, the ratio rose higher, to 9.8 percent. By the time the dust settles on 2022, the numbers could worsen still, with food supplies from Russia and Ukraine—two of the world’s largest grain and fertilizer producers—largely cut off from the world. 

Back in July, I had a revelatory conversation with Ertharin Cousin, the former head of the U.N. World Food Program. Most people think about the issue of hunger in the wrong way, she said. It’s not that there are too many people on the planet, as many of us assume; nor is the problem that we can’t make enough food. “If we embrace science and innovation,” Cousin said, “we can feed every person on this planet.”

Consider this issue an embrace of those principles—a collection of practical ideas for getting smarter about food production, making supply chains more efficient, and wasting less. We at Foreign Policy felt a sense of urgency about exploring this topic because feeding the planet has become even more critical lately. 

For a long time, the proportion of the world’s population affected by hunger stayed relatively stable, albeit unacceptably high: about 8 percent, according to the United Nations. Then COVID-19 struck. By the end of 2020, with supply chains broken and global trade clogged, that number had inched up to 9.3 percent. A year later, as the full impacts of pandemic-related shutdowns were realized, the ratio rose higher, to 9.8 percent. By the time the dust settles on 2022, the numbers could worsen still, with food supplies from Russia and Ukraine—two of the world’s largest grain and fertilizer producers—largely cut off from the world. 

Beyond hunger, 2.3 billion people—or nearly 30 percent of the world’s population—qualify as moderately or severely food-insecure. Inflation has put a healthy diet out of reach for many: 3.1 billion people around the world are unable to afford the nutrition they need. 

The question is how to turn that trajectory around. Sarah Taber, a crop scientist, opens our Fall 2022 issue by inviting readers to consider how the organizing principle we use to grow our food—industrialized agriculture—actually benefits only a select few. Namely: farm owners and rich countries. “To reach food security,” Taber writes, “many of us will have to abandon cherished ideas about how the food system should work.” She argues that we must invest in fisheries and forests and treat food policy more as a public utility than as a corporate endeavor. 

One way to produce more food would be to improve access to fertilizer, according to Saloni Shah, a food and agriculture analyst. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa use only 20 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare of land—less than 15 percent of the global average. As a result, those countries produce fewer crops and are forced to spend money on expensive imports. But supporting greater production of carbon-intensive fertilizer could hurt donor countries’ climate goals. Policymakers would be wise to ignore those impacts in the short term while putting in place greener measures for the future, Shah says.

Another solution to the world’s hunger problem could emerge from the past: Ancient grains such as millet are nutrient-rich, need less water, and are more resistant to pests. Though millet has declined in popularity over the last few centuries, journalist Dan Saladino traveled to Nongtraw in northeastern India to discover how one community is pioneering its return and transforming their diet in the process.

Alternative proteins are becoming more fashionable, at least in the West. But why is the Impossible Burger more expensive than a regular beef burger? Nigel Purvis and Bruce Friedrich, two food and climate experts, make the case for targeted tax credits and subsidies to attract investment. It worked for renewable energy, and it could work for alternative proteins, too. 

Lastly, Alicia Kennedy, a journalist, reports from Puerto Rico on how local entrepreneurs are betting big on mushrooms to achieve food sovereignty in a part of the world already hit hard by climate change. It’s a hopeful story, like others in the issue, that will also have you hankering for the vegan version of alcapurria, a fried beach snack that Puerto Rican chefs have reimagined with cremini mushrooms. 

In addition to these imaginative and concrete solutions to the knotty issue of global food security, there’s lots more to explore—starting with our best Arguments of the quarter from around the world and bookended with reviews. Don’t miss FP’s own Jennifer Williams reviewing Gerry Adams’s little-known foray into cookbook writing. Yes, that Gerry Adams. Flip to the back to discover his elaborate four-ingredient green salad recipe.

As ever, 

Ravi Agrawal

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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