I have been watching a BBC documentary Botany: A Blooming History - Episode 3 Hidden World

In it, (at ~51m35s) Timothy Walker, the presenter, says:

...Certainly there may be risks attached to genetically modified plants. But, it is a known risk that people are dying of starvation because we cannot produce enough food and that situation is not going to improve as population grows.

This surprised me. I thought that was an outdated idea. I was under the impression that mountains of food go to waste and that people die of starvation primarily because of political reasons and not agricultural ones.

Is it "a known risk that people are dying of starvation because we cannot produce enough food"?

What evidence is there to prove that we are unable to grow enough food to feed the world's population?

  • 1
    It is the case that people are staving (at various times and places) because they can not produce enough food to feed themselves; are too poor to buy food on the open market; and various factors make it hard for charitable aid to reach them (but this is not the only cause of starvation around the world). And I think (but can't document) it is true that there is less of this since the onset of the green revolution. Commented May 7, 2014 at 2:43

3 Answers 3


I think the answer depends on what you mean by your question, which you stated as: Is it "a known risk that people are dying of starvation because we cannot produce enough food"?

As is often the case, we'll need to go into what some of those terms mean. To start with, the risk part you quote is certainly an unlucky choice; if people are dying of starvation, it's not a risk, but a tragedy. Let's start by changing the question to Are people dying of starvation because we cannot produce enough food?

Now, this can have two meanings:

  1. Is enough food being produced worldwide for everyone to have enough to stay alive? The answer to this one seems to be yes. Although I could not find the original FAO statement, most reputable sources (e.g. the WPF, Oxfam and others) agree that there would be enough to go around (although, once again, I have not found a publication with a clear source indication for this statement).
  2. Would producing more food mean less starvation? The answer to this one is also yes. The FAO, among many others, has clear recommendations which include a significant growth of agricultural production to ward off famines and starvation now and in the future.

In fact, you can more easily see the (false) dichotomy when you imagine two extreme scenarios. In the first, the world produces exactly as much food as is needed for everyone to have just enough to eat. You could say that any occurring starvation would be only a result of mismanagement; however, it is obvious that an absolutely perfect distribution is impossible - if one egg is dropped somewhere in the world, someone goes hungry. On the other hand, if every town and village produces a hundred times as much food as it needs, there is hardly any chance for even the grossest mismanagement or inequality to produce hunger.

To sum up: the worldwide food situation is influenced by many factors, and both production and distribution are among them (in fact, the FAO report cited above has six groups of security indicators: availability, physical access, economic access, utilization, vulnerability, and shocks). It is an almost undisputed consensus view that we could significantly reduce or even eliminate malnutrition by, among other measures, redistributing the existing supplies. However, it is equally clear that we could reach the same goals by increasing food production. Which of these is the better way is a matter of dispute, with most organizations (such as the UNICEF, Oxfam or FAO) suggesting a combined approach.


Jean Ziegler says, that 12 billion people could be fed by the world production. This is also written in the fact sheet for the right of food of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights:

"One might think that people are denied their right to food because there is not enough food to go round. However, according to FAO, the world produces enough food to feed its entire population."

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    Welcome to Skeptics! Both of your references are secondary, and refer to the FAO. It would be more definitive to quote the FAO directly.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 23:34

It is indeed the case that most of the problems with malnutrition and hunger throughout the world are political and social problems and not that we don't produce enough food.

In the Coursera course A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari Ph.D, a professor at the University of Jerusalem claims that we have a food distribution problem.

At least in the United States we discard up to 40% of the food that we produce.

This page also concurs that the problem mainly lies in social and political processes. It states that two of the main reasons people go hungry are that they are poor and that we have a problem distributing food effectively.

In his book "Poverty and famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation" Amartya Sen also makes the argument that most of the problems with world hunger come from issues with food distribution and poverty.

The problems with purchasing power also lead to a situation where farmers have a hard time getting the materials that they need in order to grow their own food meaning that they are reliant on food distribution networks for their needs.

Overall, I would tend to agree. The thought that starvation happens because there is not enough food is an outdated idea.

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