There are two competing narratives about the future of food. One is that the world population is growing and we need to increase agricultural productivity to "feed the world". The other argument is that we don't need to produce more food - we already produce enough food to feed the world and our problems are really more about distribution than production. Folks in the later camp often advocate for lower-productivity forms of agriculture that they perceive to have health or environmental benefits. Like most arguments, there are elements of truth to both sides.
As a proponent of improved agricultural productivity (which, I've argued is the key metric to improved sustainability), it bears asking: if a country's agriculture is more productive are it's people better fed?
To delve into this question, I combined two data sets. The first is a measure of a country's agricultural productivity from the World Bank in the year 2015. In particular, they calculate for a large number of countries, the agricultural value added per worker. In their words:
By this measure, the most productive countries are Slovenia, Singapore, Norway, France, Lebanon, Canada, New Zealand, Finland, and the United States, each of which produced more than $80,000 in agricultural value per worker in 2015 (measured in 2010 dollars). Places like Malawi, Congo, Mozambique, Gambia, and Madagascar had some of the lowest productivity, with agricultural value added at around $400/worker or less.
Secondly, I collected data from the Global Food Security Index, a project ran by The Economist and supported by DuPont. In their words:
From this project, I pulled each country's overall food insecurity score (calculated in September 2017), which took on the values of around 30 for countries like the Congo, Madagascar, Chad, and Malawi, and was above 80 for countries like the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, and France. Although they call this a measure of food insecurity, a higher score actually means a country is more food secure.
So, what did I find?
There is a strong positive relationship between a country's agricultural productivity and how well it's people are fed and how food secure they are. Fitting a logarithmic relationship between the two variables suggests that 82% of the variation in the food security scores across countries is explained by differences in agricultural productivity.
Now, there are a lot of other things going on here as agricultural productivity is likely correlated with and affected by other factors affecting a country's general productivity and development, but the above figure might give pause to those arguing for lower productivity forms of agriculture.
At the top end, the curve suggests one can sacrifice some productivity with only a small reduction in food security (going from $80,000/worker to $40,000/worker) reduces the food security scale from about 80 to 75. But, at the lower end, going from, say, $20,000 in agricultural output per worker to $10,000/worker reduces the food security scale from about 70 to 60, and reducing productivity another $10,000 lowers the food security scale down to the 30s.