Balance of Power, Columns, Energy, Environment, Health, Jobs, Lifestyle

Feeding 9 billion: Is it possible? (All parts 1-4)


The world’s population has already passed the 7 billion mark and is expected to hit 9 -10 billion by 2050.  Given the fact that all of the main inputs – water, fertile land and a good climate – are already under strain, how likely are we to be able to feed an additional 2-3 billion people who will all want access to the same type of food currently plentiful in the developed world?

Future, History. Now. will look at a variety of opinions on this.  First up is a special report from the February 24th 2011 edition of The Economist.  It says that:

…over the next 40 years farmers will find it harder to produce enough for everyone because of constraints on land, water and fertilisers. There is some room for expansion onto virgin land, but not much. There is less water because of competition from fast-growing cities. Returns on fertiliser use are diminishing. And government policies that boost biofuels and restrict trade will get in the way.

However, it is reasonably optimistic that the planet can provide enough food by bringing modern food technology to the rest of the world, increasing yields and reducing crop failures.

In a way, this is a surprising conclusion as the likelihood of this optimistic scenario playing out is low, as The Economist’s own tally of problems seems to outweigh the hope of a technological rescue.

The next opinion on whether we can feed a population of 9 billion is provided by a group of scientists led by Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota, who claim that it is possible to not only feed all those people but also protect a threatened planet. Their five-point plan consists of the following:

  1. Halt farmland expansion – Reduced land clearing for agriculture, particularly in the tropical rainforests, achieved using incentives such as payment for ecosystem services, certification and ecotourism, can yield huge environmental benefits without dramatically cutting into agricultural production or economic well-being.
  2. Close yield gaps – Many parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe have substantial “yield gaps”– places where farmland is not living up to its potential for producing crops. Closing these gaps through improved use of existing crop varieties, better management and improved genetics could increase current food production with nearly 60 percent.
  3. Use inputs more strategically – Current use of water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals suffers from what the research team calls “Goldilocks’ Problem”: too much in some places, too little in others, rarely just right. We need to use water and nutrients in more intelligent ways: less where it isn’t needed, and more where it is. This will ensure that we can grow more food, but with less harm to the environment.
  4. Shift diets– Growing animal feed or biofuels on top croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply. Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50 percent. Even shifting non-food uses such as animal feed or biofuel production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.
  5. Reduce waste– One-third of the food farms produce ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path food takes from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50 percent.

The original article was published in Nature Magazine and is unhelpfully behind a paywall. A redacted version can be found here.  

The question is how realistic are those targets?

Next up on the question of can we feed 9 billion people is Monsanto.   Unlike The Economist, with its “it is almost impossible, but we can do it message” and the environmentalists “we can do it AND help the planet message” Monsanto is unequivocal:

“…add biotechnology traits to the equation, and you can see how crop yields will increase yield rate over and above historical trends. And think about how many more people around the world could benefit from those additional bushels and pounds of corn, soybeans, cotton and their by-products.”

From their chart, above, they are predicting a widespread agricultural revolution taking place within the next 5 years with yields, thanks to biotech, doubling from current levels over a 20 year period.  Given what we know about food demand, the ability to supply so much more food is marvellous and investing in Monsanto shares must be a no brainer.

HistoryFuture, however, would like to imagine what would happen if The Economist, Jonathan Foley (of the University of Minnesota) et al and Monsanto were wrong and the world could not feed 9 billion people adequately in 2030.

The issue with The Economist (providing a “balanced” view), the environmentalists (providing a “green is good” view) and Monsanto (providing a “biotech view”) is that they seem frightened about concluding that their plans might not work.  Why?

Perhaps it is because it is hard to imagine a world in which these problems are not overcome.  The quasi-religious belief that technology will prevail is partially justified: despite Thomas Malthus’s alarming warnings almost 200 years ago about the increase in humanity overtaking humanity’s ability to feed itself, technology has enabled the world to feed itself better than ever.

The quasi-religious belief that technology will prevail and will feed the world is partially justified.

But, like a turkey who has lived a pampered life fed and watered daily it is hard to imagine that you will get the chop shortly before Thanksgiving or Christmas.  The historical record does show that there have been societies that have failed to feed themselves. The people have either died out, or have been forced to leave their lands in hope of finding unoccupied lands somewhere else.  Jarred Diamond’s book “Collapse” provides a good summary of which societies and what happened.  We don’t have to imagine what might happen but rather study what has happened.

HistoryFuture sees a general decline in food output for the following inevitable reasons:

  1. Declining aquifer water.  Some of the most productive, export centric, parts of the agricultural world are based in the US, China and Canada.  What they have all in common deep underwater aquifers where rainwater has accumulated over thousands of years.  Cheap fossil fuels has enabled the water to be pumped up to a mile from the depths to the surface.  There are two long term, troubling trends.  First, the water is running out.  To compensate, wells have to be drilled deeper and deeper, causing serious problems in places like India.  It will take thousands of years for the water to be replenished, assuming that it is not tapped continuously.  Second, the remaining water is becoming increasingly salty, which combined with the saltier soil above ground due to evaporation, will make it harder and harder to grow crops that are not salt tolerant.  Over time these great bread baskets will become harder to farm and will be abandoned, resulting in a significant loss of agricultural output.
  2. City sprawl taking prime farmland. Cities have historically been located in areas that have free access to good agricultural land.  Without the food, there could be no city.  As cities grow there is a competition between farmers and developers for that land.  Developers always win as they can generate more income from turning farmland into a high rise building than a farmer can in growing wheat or rice.  As a consequence some of the best agricultural land is being pulled out of production.
  3. Loss of topsoil.  Topsoil is a complex growing medium that takes thousands of years to develop.  It is a mixture of crushed rock mixed in with decayed plant matter, bacteria and fungi.  Every year millions of tonnes of top soil runs off the land into rivers and eventually to the sea.  Land that was once fertile can become infertile and arid.  In Brazil much of the farmland was once rain forest.  Most of the biomass was above ground.  In many areas farms switch from agriculture to pasture in a relatively short period due to poor soil quality, necessitating the felling of more rainforest to compensate for the loss of production.
  4. Desertification.  Soil is very sensitive to drying out.  If too dry the winds can blow the topsoil away.  The Sahara desert is heading northwards, with dust clouds impacting southern Spain and Italy.  The Gobi desert is a constant threat to Beijing and north east China.  Global warming is expected to exasperate this issue, acting as a multiplier effect on water and topsoil loss.
  5. Loss of fisheries.  Global fish stocks are in precipitous decline caused by overfishing.  This will be a subject of another column, but for now note that fish provides the primary protein for hundreds of millions of people.  As trawlers get more efficient at catching every larger shoals of fish there will be less fish and thus less food for those people.

As a consequence, Monsanto’s view is probably both right and wrong.  Given an identical plot of land a bioengineered plant should do better than one that has not been enhanced.  However, if the underlying land has no water, no topsoil and is under tarmac it does not matter how enhanced the plant seeds are:  it is not going to grow.

Monsanto’s view is probably both right and wrong.

So if food production is not going to keep up with demand, will this mean the end of the world, with food riots, mass migration and wars as people scramble to feed their families?  Not necessarily.

People will have to pay a lot more for their food and will have to make do with less.  From a historical perspective this is nothing new.

HistoryFuture does see a world that is food supply constrained amidst significantly rising demand.  In the developed world it means that people will have to pay a lot more for their food and will have to make do with less.  From a historical perspective this is nothing new.  Food as a percentage of a Westerner’s monthly budget is at all time historic low.  Money that was once spent on food has been shifted into holidays, leisure time and material things.  Occasionally going hungry and  eating less meat are all things that people born even as recently as the 1950s Britain had to endure. Growing food in your own garden may be hard for millions of city dwellers, but even balconies can be used as a growing location to supplement a diet.

It is in the poorer parts of the world where people  already suffer from hunger and already eat little protein that there is room for more concern.  Significantly increased food prices could prove devastating which would encourage their governments to introduce measures to stop the exports of home grown foods.  Ironically this may have a worse impact as the cost of farmers inputs would likely reach a level where they would be farming at a loss.  This occurred during the 2008 food riots in south east Asia where prime farmland was converted into growing grass for golf courses, despite widespread hunger.

Riots can result in the overthrow of governments, to be replaced by politicians or army generals who promise to “do something” about food shortages.  At that point it is almost impossible to predict how things will work out.

Hopefully we wont need to.

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