Can The Earth Provide Enough Food For 9 Billion People?

That's how many are expected to inhabit the world by 2050. Experts worry over looming food shortages.

"The possibility of a world food shortage is causing more and more concern. 'It's likely to get worse in coming years,' reckons Mr. Chamie, now research director at the Center for Migration Studies, a New York think tank."

"His fear is partly based on the fact that the world's population is growing by about 78 million people a year, with projections of an additional 2.5 billion people by 2050 – a generation away."

"'The most significant event of the 20th and 21st century is the growth of world population,' Chamie says. 'It has affected every life form on this planet.'"

"The present situation, however, is different, says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. It's based on trends, not specific incidents. Longer-term trends include the growing world population and the desire of huge numbers of increasingly prosperous people in China, India, and elsewhere to eat more meat and eggs. A shorter-term problem, he says, is the growing use of corn and other foods to distill biofuels for cars, trucks, and other energy uses."

"Unless the food-shortage situation is tackled seriously and quickly, the world faces increased social unrest, food riots, political instability, and more failed states, notes Mr. Brown. 'Civilization is now at risk,' he says."

Full Story: Can the earth provide enough food for 9 billion people?

Comments

Comments

Soylent Green is the answer

Famine has long haunted mankind and it has affected parts of the developing world almost continually. Food distribution problems brought on by internal political instability, subidized food prices undercutting farmers' profits and high birth rates in the developing world are the key problems.

Potatoes should be considered since they require less soil and water. The humble spud saved a lot of my ancestors before the blight and if I'm not mistaken I read about the virtues of the potato on tihs website not long ago.

Some Good News About Food

Articles like this always emphasize the bad news to try to shock people into action, but this may be counterproductive: they may make people believe things are so bad that nothing can be done. So here are two pieces of good news that they don't mention.

1) Population will level off. They mention that world population will grow the 9 billion by 2050, but they don't mention that it is expected to level off at 9 billion and then start declining for demographic reasons (assuming that we don't have a more drastic population decline for ecological reasons). Throughout human history, population has tended to grow to to the limits of the food supply and then to be limited by hunger, but after 2050, world population is expect to start declining for the first time, so it may be possible to create a world without hunger.

2) Yield per acre is still increasing enough to accommodate population growth. They mention that "the growth of yields from the world's grain fields has declined from 2.1 percent a year between 1950 and 1990 during the height of the green revolution to 1.2 percent a year since then." but they don't mention that even this 1.2 percent increase means that yield per acre will increase more than 60 percent by 2050 - more than enough to accommodate increased world population.

So, the threat of world hunger is not a result of inevitable Malthusian trends but of decisions we have some control over, such as whether we slow global warming enough to avoid widespread desertification and whether the rich people of the world eat so much meat and use so much ethanol that they take the land needed to produce food for the poor people of the world.

If the world has the political will, we can probably get past the demographic peak of the mid twenty-first century without widespread famine. I am not optimistic that we will have enough wisdom to do it, but it is a possibility.

Charles Siegel

Additional food news.

Charles,

the per-capita grain production worldwide peaked in 1984, and is not forecast - by anyone - to rebound.

Also, farmland is not generally increasing on the planet, as desertification is an issue in many places. And water is not becoming more abundant as fossil aquifers are depleted. There are many challenges to overcome, esp fertilizer manufacture (which is highly energy intensive [Haber process uses natural gas]). My point being that overcoming these issues entails an unprecedented level of cooperation. Me, I hope we can do it.

Best,

D

More About Food

Dano:

I agree with your most important point: that overcoming these issues requires unprecedented human cooperation. As I said in my original post, I don't think we will have the wisdom to do it, and it is most likely that we will allow global warming to reduce agricultural productivity and cause widespread famine.

But I also think the undue pessimism of the Earth Policy Institute, described in this article, makes it less likely that we will act effectively, by making famine seem inevitable.

Note that your links contradict each other.

The graph at http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/cia/globaltrends2015/375781.gif shows that the decline in per capita grain production is leveling off and will rebound slightly after 2010.

The graph at http://maps.grida.no/go/graphic/grain_production_in_the_world_1950_1995_... shows per capita grain production declining steadily and rapidly during the same period. And who is the source of this more pessimistic graph? The WorldWatch Institute, closely related to the Earth Policy Institute, cited in this article.

The pernicious thing about this second graph is that it only goes to 2050, just before world population peaks. People looking at it will imagine that the line will keep going down indefinitely, but actually, per capita grain production should probably start increasing when world population starts declining (if we can avoid severe global warming).

I think people would be more likely to act effectively to prevent hunger if they realized that we just have to get past this demographic peak, that population pressure will not keep increasing forever - only for about 50 more years. And the WorldWatch graph hides that fact.

(PS: I should add that I am a great admirer of both the WorldWatch and Earth Resources Institutes, and I have often benefited from and made use of their work. I am just criticizing them for one thing: they are sometimes destructively pessimistic.)
Charles Siegel

Food for thoughts.

Thank you Charles. I agree in many respects, but key resource constraints challenge our ability to adapt and innovate to solve...er...key resource challenges in order to feed 3B more mouths, many of whom want to eat more meat.

The EPI graph I provided above matches the two non-EPI graphs you highlight (the forecasts). EPI merely projects current trends and tries to analyze their result. I have not seen a per-capita projection for grain production.

EPI is not pessimistic in its book Eco-Economy, which spent from pp 77-276 on outlining doable solutions, even in this era of weak leadership.

Plan B et al. also outlines multitudinous solutions. Both Plan B and Outgrowing the Earth projected fairly well the current situation wrt grain stocks, oil trends, forest destruction.

So, if they are destructively pessimistic as you assert, is is because their projection of trends is rather accurate; as they say in OTE:

    WE have inherited the mindset, policies, and fiscal priorities from an era of food security that no longer exists...[u]nless we recognize the nature of the era we are entering and adopt new polities and priorities that recognize the earth's natural limits, world food security could begin to deteriorate.

and when you say: I think people would be more likely to act effectively to prevent hunger if they realized that we just have to get past this demographic peak, that population pressure will not keep increasing forever - only for about 50 more years. And the WorldWatch graph hides that fact , this is where I reiterate that water and fert are not dependent upon demographics, but rather resources and prices.

Getting past a demographic peak will require more innovation than we have exhibited in the last 20 years - and our response to the food issue has been exacerbated by not thinking about food when subsidizing biofuels, which is an indicator we have learned nothing at all.

And, I have confidence that we can turn away from our burning everything in sight for mechanical energy IF we get some leadership around here. Me, I don't see it happening. I hope it does, but I'm not betting the farm on it.

Takeaway message: we can do it if we change. And I hope we want to. I'm interested in your continued thoughts on this topic.

Best,

D

Thoughts On Food

Dano, you are right that I shouldn't say the EPI is pessimistic. When I read Plan B, I was inspired by the dramatic action it calls for. It is more accurate to say they are alarmist: they want to convince people that there are very big problems so people adopt the big solutions they support - but the danger is that they may convince people the problems are too big to solve.

I think the graph at http://maps.grida.no/go/graphic/grain_production_in_the_world_1950_1995_... tends to make people people feel hopeless. Note that this graph is from the UN, but the source they cite is the WorldWatch Institute (founded by Lester Brown, like the EPI.)

This is a graph of per capita global grain production. If you look at what it shows for the years 2001-2015 and compare it with the per capita global grain production for those years in the other graph I highlight above, you will see that the WorldWatch graph shows it is declining and the other graph shows it is stable during those years.

It is true, as you say, that "water and fert are not dependent upon demographics, but rather resources." But per capita water and fert are dependent on resources divided by population. If, water resources remain constant and population increases, then per capita water decreases, but if population decreases, then per capita water increases.

That is why life will get easier when we get past the demographic peak - which is actually just 2.4 billion more mouths to feed, about 35% more than we now have (assuming a peak of 9 billion).

There is a front-page article in today's NY Times about fertilizer shortages, which ends as follows:

"This month, a United Nations panel called for changes in agricultural practices to make them less damaging. The panel recommended techniques that offer some of the same benefits as chemical fertilizer, like increased crop rotation with legumes that naturally add some nitrogen to the soil. But others say those approaches, while helpful, will be not be enough to meet the world’s rapidly rising demand for food and biofuel. ..."
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/30/business/worldbusiness/30fertilizer.ht...

Though I am not at all an expert, I suspect the truth is between the two: we cannot eliminate chemical fertilizer, but we can begin to substitute nitrogen-fixing plants and reduce the need for fertilizer - which will also help slow global warming. (note that the map referenced in this article shows that the European Union reduced fertilizer use 23% in the last 10 years, but the article doesn't talk about this. Does anyone know how the EU did this?)

I agree completely with your final point:
"I have confidence that we can turn away from our burning everything in sight for mechanical energy IF we get some leadership around here. Me, I don't see it happening. I hope it does, but I'm not betting the farm on it. Takeaway message: we can do it if we change. And I hope we want to."

This is a big reason I back Obama. Though he hasn't addressed these issues adequately (as far as I know), I think he could possibly inspire the idealism that we have lacked for the past several decades and that we need in the coming decades to promote the dramatic change that the world needs, as you say.

Yours,
Charles Siegel

Who thinks about food.

Well said, Charles.

It is more accurate to say [EPI is] alarmist: they want to convince people that there are very big problems so people adopt the big solutions they support - but the danger is that they may convince people the problems are too big to solve.

Well, these _are_ very big problems. I don't see their solutions as being much different than what most forward-thinkers are offering, however - basically: efficiencies, smarter, cooperation, R&D and technology, start yesterday. Societies are not doing much of anything as one gets to the end of this list.

Nonetheless, what's very big is the likelihood that feeding 3B more people who will effectively demand ~500M-1B ha of land, and by any measure this is a massive undertaking and ecological disruption (this much land required due to higher incomes demand more meat, thus more land to grow that kcal). This production will also take lots of energy (and we are undergoing an energy balance of power shift right now). This will also apportion yet more NPP to humans, further fragmenting and stressing already stressed ecosystems.

Tilman explained this here (Science 292:5515 pp 281-284 ) and in this very recent .ppt here (re: biofuel land demand). As Borlaug said at the end of the arty you linked to (and which I had already read): “Without chemical fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.”

This has impacts. Can we overcome them? Certainly the way we frame things is important. But individuals and societies are disinclined to act unless there is a threat or they are galvanized. Now, the environmental movement has tried to stir action by these frames for many years. Are we suffering from outrage fatigue? Maybe many of us are and that's why we bristle at these old frames.

Best regards, sir,

Ð

Gavanized To Act - Not Just On Food

"But individuals and societies are disinclined to act unless there is a threat or they are galvanized. Now, the environmental movement has tried to stir action by these frames for many years. Are we suffering from outrage fatigue?"

I think people are most likely to act when there is both a threat and a hope. The environmental movement has spent too much time talking about future disasters and not enough time talking about the hope of a better future. Even Brown's _Plan B_ supports decisive action to avert disaster but does not have much of a positive vision of the future.

This is a theme of a very little book that I will bring out soon named "The Politics Of Simple Living." It points out that New Urbanism reduces fuel and land consumption and also builds more livable neighborhoods, and it applies a similar principle across the economy - that we could live better if we had policies that give us the choice of downshifting economically.

Dano, I would be interested in your opinion of it, and I would be glad to send you a copy when it comes out (in a month or so). If you want one, email me at siegel[at]preservenet.com. At 64 pages, it is a quick read, and I think you would enjoy it.

Charles Siegel

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