New Internationalist

Food & farming

Issue 353


Many people still do not get anything like enough to eat – while others eat far too much.1,2

In 1997-99 (the most recent figures) there were:

  • 815 million undernourished (without enough food to meet their daily energy requirements) people in the world
  • 777 million of them in the developing nations
  • 27 million in ‘transition’ countries
  • 11 million in industrialized countries
  • Since the mid-1960s there has been a dramatic cut in the number of undernourished people, largely due to huge reductions in poverty in China. Remove China from the picture and the number of undernourished people in the other developing countries actually increased by almost 40 million
  • The number of hungry people in developing countries is expected to decline from 777 million today to about 440 million in 2030 – though the target of the 1996 World Food Summit to halve the number of hungry people by 2015 will not be met
  • World population is now 6 billion and is projected to grow to 8.3 billion by 2030. This would require a 40-45% increase in food production. But, overall, the rate of growth of both population and demand for food is expected to slow.


Farming the land provides the livelihood of a large proportion of the world’s people.5

  • Agriculture provides the main source of income for some 2.5 billion people
  • 96% of the world’s farmers live in developing countries
  • Despite growing urbanization, 2/3 of the world’s poor live in rural areas
  • In the rural areas of the developing world, close to 900 million people live on less than $1 a day. The agricultural sector is crucial for their survival


The consolidation or ‘vertical integration’ of pesticide, seed and biotechnology corporations – known as ‘Life Science’ companies – is delivering up control over large parts of the human food chain to a small number of powerful corporations.

  • Just four companies – based in the US and linked in two alliances (Cargill/Monsanto and Novartis/ADM) – control over 80% of the world seed market and 75% of the world agrochemical market2
  • 6 corporations handle about 85% of world trade in grain; 15 control between 85% and 90% of world coffee sales11


Genetic resources are the building blocks of food security. Yet we now rely on less than 30 crop varieties for 80% of the world’s food supply.12

  • About 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost since 1900
  • About 30% of livestock breeds are close to extinction, and at least one breed of traditional livestock dies out every week
  • Mexico has lost 80% of its varieties of corn since the 1930s
  • China lost over 90% of wheat and rice varieties between the 1950s and the 1970s


Developing countries’ shrinking agricultural trade surplus will become a deficit by 2030.5

  • In 1961 developing-world farmers captured 40% of global trade in agricultural commodities. Due to falling production prices, import liberalization in the developing world and huge trade barriers to rich-world markets, in 2001 that figure was reduced to 35%5
  • The subsidy to each cow in the EU, at $2.50, exceeds the daily income of many Africans. The richest 20% of EU farmers get 80% of the subsidies. The total amount of support to agriculture in rich countries stands at some $300 billion per annum.
  • Bangladesh reduced import tariffs from 102% to 27% between 1988 and 1996. Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania cut tariff rates by a half or more during the 1990s5
  • Trade liberalization has not necessarily led to cheaper food prices for consumers in poor countries. More than 20% of the total population of some strong trade liberalizers, such as Bolivia, Nepal and Mali, are undernourished5


Agriculture consumes 70% of all the fresh water used in the world. Its unsustainable use for irrigation in intensive agriculture leads to water shortages and even to desertification, siltation and therefore to soil destruction.9

  • About 20% of the planet’s agricultural land is irrigated and accounts for about 40% of the world’s agricultural production9
  • European agriculture is responsible for 60% of the total riverine input of nitrogen to the North Sea7
  • Global warming is not expected to depress food availability at the global level, but at the regional and local levels there may be significant negative impacts, particularly on small and marginal farmers, and in the tropics and subtropics. Many African countries are likely to become more vulnerable to food insecurity2
  • Farming also has a positive role to play. By 2030 the amount of carbon locked up in cropland soils, as organic matter from crop residues and manure, could rise by 50% if better management practices are introduced2
  • In Britain pesticide residues have been found in 46% of potatoes, 45% of milk, 26% of butter, 19% of bread and 41% of fruit and vegetables8
  • The global market for organic food is now estimated at $17.5 billion a year, with the US accounting for $8 billion, Japan $2.5 billion and Germany for $2.3 billion each10

Cash crops

Every year an extra million hectares is transferred from food crops to plantation crops – almost always for export.11

Genetic modification

Genetically modified (GM) crops have had an extraordinarily rapid market introduction, increasing from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 52.6 million hectares in 2001.3 The seed technology of just one company (Monsanto) accounted for 91% of the total area devoted to commercial GM crops in 2001.4

  • Two genetically engineered traits accounted for virtually all the world’s 52.6 million hectares of GM crops in 20013
  • 77% of this area has herbicide tolerance – which allows for increased application of pesticides manufactured by the proprietary company
  • 15% of this area has Bt crops – engineered to be toxic to certain pests
  • 8% has both traits

  1. Shetty and James Body Mass Index – A Measure of Chronic Energy Deficiency in Adults, Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen.
  2. World Agriculture 2030: Main Findings, Food and Agriculture Organization.
  3. C James, ‘Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 2001’, ISAAA Briefs No. 24 Preview, Ithaca, New York. ISAAA is the source of GM statistics cited in this update unless otherwise noted.
  4. Monsanto website, using ISAAA’s statistic for global GM crop area.
  5. Boxing Match in Agricultural Trade, Oxfam Briefing Paper 32.
  6. FAO Economic and Social Department, Commodities and Trade Division, United States Department of Agriculture.
  7. ED Ongley, Control of water pollution from agriculture, FAO irrigation and drainage paper 55, 1996.
  8. Reducing your risk: a UK guide to avoiding hormone disruptors, WWF.
  9. Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making, The Report of the World Commission on Dams, November 2000.
  10. International Trade Centre report Organic Agriculture Worldwide 2002.
  11. John Madely, Big Business, Poor Peoples, Zed Books, 1999.
  12. Food and Agriculture Organization.

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This article was originally published in issue 353

More articles from this issue

  • Silent violence of malnutrition

    January 1, 2003

  • Tricks of the Trade

    January 1, 2003

    The rules of the global trading system – who makes them and why, as they apply to rice, meat, dairy products, sugar, wheat, coffee and genetically modified soya and maize.

  • Shares in the sky

    January 1, 2003

    A model to reduce global warming – and increase global justice. Mark Lynas explains ‘contraction and convergence’.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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