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7 Billion People By October: How Are We Going to Feed Ourselves?

As population rates skyrocket, millions of mouths to feed increase pressure on the world's farmers to squeeze more and more food from less and less arable land.
 
 
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Come October, Atlas won't be shrugging, he'll be groaning as global population passes the 7 billion mark. Until very recently, demographers predicted that these numbers would peak in 2050 at just over 9 billion and then start to decline. The latest research, however, suggests that despite declining fertility across much of the world, population will continue to rise through this century to over 10 billion people.

With famine spreading in Somalia, another food crisis gripping North Korea, global food prices near a record high, and climate change threatening to reduce future harvests, the question continues to nag: are we outstripping our capacity to feed ourselves?

The good news is that the harvests this year promise to be bountiful. The bad news is that this increased grain production may still not be enough. The worse news is that millions more mouths to feed, over the long term, will increase pressure on the world's farmers to squeeze more and more food from less and less arable land.

In 2010, the world dipped into food reserves to make up for a 60-million-ton shortfall in grain production. This year, predicts the Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown, farmers will have to produce 100 million additional tons to meet last year's needs plus the increased demand. Based on a number of factors – better harvests in Russia versus droughts in China and the U.S. Midwest – Brown expects only an increase of about 80 million tons for 2011. The bottom line: food prices will continue to rise.

But that's just the short term. Most estimates of grain needs in 2050 suggest that production will have to increase by 70 percent. That means somehow conjuring a billion-plus tons of grain from the already strained resource base of Mother Earth.

There are basically four schools of thought on how to feed the world. The biotech crowd believes that genetic modification will eventually spur another Green Revolution that will dramatically boost yield per acre. The organics faction believes that industrial farming techniques have drained the aquifers and robbed the topsoil of nutrients, among other ecological ills, and only natural farming techniques can restore soil fertility and produce sustainable yields. Somewhere in the middle is the status-quo-plus gang, which believes that improvement of current practices can meet the needs of a growing world. And the fourth school is…well, I'll get to that in a moment.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which now make up the vast majority of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States, have not lived up to the claims of their most fervent cheerleaders. The main problem with GMOs, as far as I'm concerned, is their tendency to intensify industrial agriculture, which relies on heavy inputs of energy, fertilizer, pesticides, and water. I would not rule out the possibility of a next-generation GMO someday proving useful in a sustainable way, for instance in conjunction with no-till agriculture. But this particular brand of biotech is certainly no magic bullet.

The argument that organic farming can feed the world has gotten a boost from several recent studies, including one at the University of Michigan that showed that organic yields can be three times that of conventional yields in developing countries, and research at Cornell on how organic and local farming can cut energy inputs into agriculture by 50 percent. But organic farming is not a magic bullet either. As the sector gets larger, particularly here in the United States, it has come to resemble its hated industrial rival by adopting pesticides and monocropping and all the other trappings of Farming, Inc. Yes, small-scale organic farming has garnered considerable success in the developing world, for instance in the Philippines. But traditional, less intensive farming has also failed us in the past. As Jason Clay writes in his magisterial World Agriculture and the Environment, "Some of these less intensive farming systems have failed, and often population densities have pushed cultivation levels beyond what is sustainable. There is ample evidence that parts of the Andes, Mesoamerica, North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South and Southeast Asia, New England and even the Great Plains (to name but a few) were overfarmed to the point of degradation or collapse using 'traditional' forms of agricultural production."