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More People Have More To Eat, But It's Not All Good News

Dec 26, 2013
Originally published on December 26, 2013 8:03 am

Among the things to celebrate this holiday season is the fact that there are fewer hungry people in the world. Just how many? Well, since 1965, researchers in Europe have been tracking the world's food supply and where it's going.

The good news is: The percentage of the world's population getting what the researchers say is a sufficient diet has grown from 30 percent to 61 percent.

In 1965, a majority of the world survived on less than 2,000 calories a day per person. This was especially true in parts of the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, China and Southeast Asia. Now, 61 percent of the world has access to 2,500 or more calories a day.

But one thing the scientists discovered is that the countries that have a history of food insufficiency didn't just up and start growing lots more food. Instead, for the most part they're increasing supply by importing food from abroad.

Cross-border trade in food has skyrocketed in the past 50 years. The major exporters have been the U.S., Canada, Australia and Argentina. Brazil, once a place with its own food deficit, is also a major producer of food grown just for export.

And as the supply of food in previously hungry nations has increased, so has consumption of animal-based food. In fact, worldwide, the supply of calories from animal-based nutrition has increased 2.6 times.

Writing in the journal PLoS, the researchers, from Finland and Germany, note that the increase in food production may strain natural resources in some places as more land is put into agriculture, more fertilizer and pesticides are used, and more energy is needed to produce and ship food.

Moreover, the spread of higher-calorie diets has also increased people's weight. Recent research shows that obesity is on the rise in places like China and Pacific Island nations as diets both improve and change.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, researchers in Europe have been trying to answer a pretty big question: How much food is there in the world? They've tracked the availability of food for the past 50 years. The good news is there seems to be more of it in countries that used to have little.

But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, those countries aren't necessarily growing it themselves.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: In 1965, there were lots of places that didn't have enough food for their citizens. This was especially true in parts of the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, China and Southeast Asia.

In fact, in 1965 only one-third of the world's population had what the researchers deemed a sufficient food supply - 2,500 or more calories per person a day.

Now that percentage of sufficiently fed people is just over 60 percent.

But many of these countries where supply has improved did not make up the food deficit themselves by growing it. Instead, they imported it from abroad. Cross-border trade in food has skyrocketed in the past 50 years. The major exporters have been the U.S., Canada, Australia and Argentina. Brazil, once a place with its own food deficit, is also a major producer of food grown just for export.

Along with the rise in food trade and consumption, people are eating more animal-based food as well. The supply of calories from animal-based nutrition has increased 2.6 times.

Writing in the journal PLOS, the researchers note that the increase in high-calorie diets has also increased people's weight. Recent research shows more obesity in places like China and Pacific Island nations.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.