News & Politics

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.

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."

The third path, status-quo plus, basically tweaks the existing approach to farming in the developing world and makes it a good deal more productive. One increasingly famous example comes from Malawi, the small African country of 15 million people that juts into Mozambique. About five years ago, President Bingu wa Mutharika began a subsidy program so that farmers could buy seeds and fertilizer at below-market rates. "Despite concerns from the World Bank and the UN, President Mutharika promoted Malawi’s agriculture sector and decreased poverty from 52 percent to 40 percent while turning Malawi into a food basket not only for its people but also for export," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Simone D'Abreu in Malawi Makes, Africa Takes. This "Malawi model" also relies on improving infrastructure, providing training for farmers, bringing more arable land under cultivation, and building up soil health through agro-forestry. The Malawi model challenges the conventional wisdom of the World Bank on the need for privatization, not state agricultural subsidies, but its approach to farming is relatively conventional. Using more fertilizer, after all, was a Green Revolution innovation more than 40 years ago.

Mutharika, who has been in the news recently for violently suppressing his political opposition, wants to apply the Malawi Model to the continent as a whole. This African Food Basket initiative aims to make Africa food-secure within five years. That’s unrealistic, perhaps, but there's no denying the urgency. Malawi's population, for instance, is expected to increase more than eight-fold by the end of the century, with the population of Africa as a whole likely to triple from 1 billion to 3.6 billion.

For the most part, these three approaches of biotech, organic, and status-quo plus focus on boosting production. But there's a fourth way to address the upcoming supply-demand crunch. Let's call it the Waste Not, Want Not approach.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, we waste or lose about one-third of all food produced for human consumption. That's about 1.3 billion tons of food. Everyone is implicated in this tragedy: consumers who throw out food, institutions that let food spoil, processors that "sort out" huge amounts of produce deemed unsatisfactory, facilities that expose their stocks to rodents through improper storage, transporters who lose food along the way, and growers who leave food behind in the field.

Remember your mother shaming you into eating all the food on your plate because of all the starving people in the world? Now multiply those uneaten Brussels sprouts more than a trillion times.

On the topic of eating all the food on your plate, well, that's a problem, too. Obesity has assumed near-epidemic proportions. In the United States, less than 10 percent of the population was obese in 1985, but that figure has now risen to nearly one-third. It's not just the global north. In the developing world, you can find obesity rates nearing 40 percent in countries like Brazil and Colombia.

A related issue is meat consumption. Imagine eating 16 pounds of grain in one sitting. That's what you do, essentially, when you consume a 16-ounce steak, since it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef (as well as 2,500 gallons of water). Eating meat, in other words, is a fancy way of over-consuming resources. And this over-consumption is just getting more over the top. Global production of meat is expected to double by 2050 to meet the growing demand, particularly in the developing world.

Perhaps the ultimate in "waste not" would be to shift over to eating insects and turn our exterminators into hunter-gatherers. Fried grasshoppers, according to a fascinating article by Dana Goodyear in The New Yorker, have three times as much protein as their equivalent weight in beef. Insects already provide an important source of food for many people. Indeed, in certain parts of the world, increased pesticide use as part of industrial agriculture has killed off or poisoned the grasshoppers that provided essential protein, especially for children. Talk about monocropping destroying diverse local eating habits.

For now, at least, insects are definitely a "want not" rather than a "waste not" for most Americans. Still, even if we don't embrace bedbug burgers any time soon, we have to take the lead in transforming our appetites. According to World Watch, if you divide the population of the earth by the amount of biologically productive land, every human today gets about 1.9 hectares to supply their resource needs. The average American, however, lays claim to 9.7 hectares. Boosting food production won't mean anything if the lion's share continues to go to the gluttonous. If we're going to feed the world, we're going to have to feed ourselves a lot less extravagantly.

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