Education and Food Security: One Success, Two Warnings and Three Paradoxes

Special Focus : The Role of Education to Achieve Sustainable Development
Access and Inclusion January 13, 2015

This is article 2 of 4  in our special focus on education’s impact on development and why the new development goals must go further to ensure that all children have access to quality basic and secondary education. This special focus is co-produced by Global Partnership for Education.


A phenomenal success 

Education is a very smart investment. In fact, the Post-2015 Consensus describes it as “phenomenal”, with returns exceeding 15 times the cost of some of its interventions.  Education has multiple individual benefits. It increases present human capital and future earnings. It improves opportunities by facilitating women’s participation in labor markets and shaping preferences, which has resulted in a historical reduction in fertility rates.  

Education also has enormous social benefits. It saves lives by magnifying the effects of improved sanitation, reducing the risk of conflict and improving food security. In effect, children of more educated parents – especially more educated women — benefit from better feeding practices, receive better prenatal care, and are less likely to be malnourished. Higher earnings among more educated individuals mean more resources to buy food, better access to nutritious foods, and more options to cope with price shocks and food shortages. 

In addition, well-nourished children and adults perform better in schools and labor markets. By weakening the perverse link between malnutrition and loss of productivity, which is estimated to have reduced the world’s GDP by a whopping 8 percent during the 20th century, education can bring phenomenal returns indeed. For all these reasons, the food security rationale for investing in education is uncontested. 

Or is it?

Two warnings

As societies become more educated and prosperous, their food demands increase and vary in composition. Meat and dairy products become more prominent in the diets of more developed societies. On average, by 2040 each of the nine billion people living on Earth will consume almost a third more meat than today’s seven billion people (or 12 kg more than the current 44 kg of meat per person per year).  Such demand changes will impose further pressures on global food systems and the planet’s natural resources.  A single fact explains why: producing a calorie from cereals requires an average of 7-10 calories of energy in input; producing a calorie from beef requires 36. 

And as societies become more prosperous, they also waste more food. On average, the world is said to lose and waste between a quarter and a third of the food it produces for human consumption. This is more than one billion metric tons of food per year! In the more educated and developed world, consumers waste a staggering annual average of 75-115 kilograms of food per person. This year a family of four in the US will waste more than $1,600 worth of food. And this absurd waste becomes worse among wealthier and more educated socioeconomic groups –both in developed and developing societies.  

Is it really fair to blame education for these pressures on food security? A causal link remains to be empirically demonstrated and quantified but this should not serve as an excuse: more educated societies have been so far incapable of preventing thoughtless behaviors having an impact on limited natural resources.

Three paradoxes 

Looking forward, we need to realize – and act upon – what I describe as the three paradoxes associated with education and food security. 

The food paradox: As education becomes more successful in reducing today’s food insecurity, it may contribute to increasing pressures on tomorrow’s natural resources. Humanity has never been richer and more educated. Poverty has never affected a smaller share of the world’s population. Yet, some 805 million world citizens suffer from hunger.

 The distribution paradox: As more and more children are able to access high-quality education, those left behind will be more vulnerable to food insecurity. And as the world becomes more prosperous, inequalities will have a more onerous burden on those suffering them. This will also be true in terms of food disparities.    

 The information paradox: It is by spreading more information, knowledge, good practices and awareness – and not by simply adding more schooling years – that the perils of irresponsible food behaviors can be addressed.  It is precisely by “educating” the most educated societies that this embarrassment of riches will be stopped.