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Merryn's Blog

There won’t be a global food shortage, instead there will be a glut

Many people predict a future where there is not enough food to go round, as populations grow. But it’s quite possible we will have too much food, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

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New techonology has increased yields

"The eco-gloomsters who warned of a Malthusian disaster were wrong. A global food glut is more likely than famine." So said Matt Ridley in the Times earlier this week.

His argument was simple: technology allows us to increase the yields from our land beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors. Computers tell us the best time to harvest, and modern combine harvesters leave barely a grain behind. The result is bumper harvests. Good news indeed.

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But two other snippets of information came my way this week that made me worry less about global food shortages than many. The first was from an interview with Alex Perry in which we talked about the re-greening of the Sahara desert (really). You will be able to listen to this soon.

The second came from Leo Lewis writing about rice production in Japan. There are no end of things in it that one could write about (the extraordinary political power the rice farmers have held for decades in Japan being the obvious one) but two stand out from the piece in particular.

The first backs up Ridley's key point (there is plenty of food in the world, so any malnutrition is more a matter of logistics than anything else). It is that one million hectares of the 2.5 million of rice paddy in the Japan lie fallow; unneeded and unused.

The second is that daily calorie consumption in Japan peaked at 2,670 in 2006. It has now fallen to 2,415. The reason? "People are not eating as much because the population is getting older," says a spokesman for the rice department of Japan's agricultural forestry and fisheries ministry. Old people eat less than young people.

It's another effect of the changing demographics of the developed nations that just isn't in the models. Our ageing population has technology that allows it to produce more food than before but it needs less than before. Which is nice.

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