Population Matters

Not So Easy

August 6th, 2010

The writers and editors at Nature this past week boldly proclaimed, with some carefully qualified caveats, that producing enough food for the world’s population in 2050 will be easy. 

Maybe not.  Sending humans to the moon and safely returning them to the Earth is easy.  Been there, done that.  Feeding 9 to 9.5 billion people or more by 2050?  Not so easy. We’ve never done that.  And there are good reasons to believe we might not be able to.

Let’s take a closer look at what the writers at Nature said, and do a little dissecting.

In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished — their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements — not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. At least 30% of food goes to waste.

Scientists, like everyone else on this planet, need to differentiate the theoretical from the economical and the practical.  If, as a result of grain embargoes by Russia and (possibly) Ukraine, the price of bread doubles this year, the impact on the world’s urban poor–many of whom are living on less than $1.25 a day–will be devastating.  And it matters not whether wheat reserves are rotting in India or whether Russia and Ukraine have surplus wheat. And it doesn’t matter how many bread crumbs we discard. 

The dictates of the marketplace can be brutal. There is plenty of money in the world, far more than is needed to eliminate severe poverty, but severe poverty persists.  In a global economy, where people’s ability to feed themselves depends on the cost of rice or bread, hunger can exist on a wide scale, even if there is plenty of food–in theory–to go around.

Don’t believe that?  Take a look at what’s happening today in the African Sahel. Last month, Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), warned that, as a consequence of widespread hunger, Niger was in danger of “losing a generation.”  She said that the development of children under the age of five in Niger will be severely impaired unless food relief arrives soon. WFP plans to reach 4.5 million people in the region in the next few months, but Sheeran warned that the situation is deteriorating rapidly and that WFP needs about $100 million to bridge the funding gap. 

Here’s what Nature said about the last global food crisis:

The 2008 food crisis, which pushed around 100 million people into hunger, was not so much a result of a food shortage as of a market volatility — with causes going far beyond supply and demand.

Wrong.  During the 2007-8 food crisis the prices of wheat and corn doubled, while the price of rice tripled.  Why?  Because the world’s grain reserves during that period fell to the lowest levels in several decades. While market volatility may have contributed in some small measure, food production was not keeping up with demand.  When grain reserves grow dangerously low, speculators will always drive up prices. Scarcity always does.

Here’s what Nature said about projected population growth:

Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and should plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family.

Not so fast. The highly respected Population Reference Bureau estimates world population is currently 6.9 billion and that it will reach the 7.0 billion mark next year. It projects that world population will be just shy of 9.5 billion by 2050.  And the U.S. Census Bureau projects that world population, at that point, will still be expanding by more than 40 million people a year.

The writers at Nature say:

Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water, will be difficult.

That’s an understatement. In many parts of the world today food production is already sapping water resources and water prospects for mid-century, particularly in many parts Asia, are not good.  Two months ago, the Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in India, released a report titled ‘The Himalayan Challenge: Water Security in Emerging Asia,” which concluded that India and China will face drops in the yield of wheat and rice anywhere between 30-50% by 2050.  At the same time demand for food grains will go up by at least 20%.”

The writers at Nature, however, suggest that technology may be the answer:

Many countries can make gains in productivity just by improving the use of existing technologies and practices.

But as the editorials writers at Nature took pains to note, “…increasing today’s brand of resource-intensive, environmentally destructive agriculture is a poor option.”  Instead, they call for investments in what they term “sustainable intensification,” so that farmers can generate greater yields using less water, fertilizer, and pesticides.

And, who knows, they may be right.  If the U.S. and other countries follow China’s example and ramp up their investments in sustainable agriculture, we might yet avert a widespread famine.  But that’s a big if.  And there are no guarantees that all the research in the world will produce a “second green revolution.”  

It all comes down to this. It may be theoretically and even economically possible to feed 9.5 billion at mid-century, but we shouldn’t bet the farm that we will.  And we certainly shouldn’t bet the fate of the world’s most severely impoverished. 

The editors at Nature say that the “investment throughout the agricultural chain in the developing world must double to US$83 billion a year.” I fully endorse that recommendation.  But what about boosting international family planning assistance by one or two billion dollars?  The need is certainly there. The U.N. estimates that there are more than 200 million women in developing countries who want to prevent an unwanted or unintended pregnancy, but who are not using modern methods of birth control. Educating and empowering women in developing countries and giving them the power to control their own fertility could go a long way toward making sure that the world can feed itself in 2050.  But, I suppose, that would be too easy.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

11 Responses to “Not So Easy”

  1. Andrew Fynn Says:

    Thanks for this. Population must be addressed, as sensitive as it may be. We can’t sit on our hands for fear of getting into choppy water (apologies for mixed metaphors).

    Education of women is the strongest corollary for declining fertility rates; however, this is not due only to increased awareness about family planning and personal rights. Changes in society that usher in a growing middle class and the economic opportunities that come with “industrialization” represent a complex raft of socioeconomic and sociocultural changes in which self-identity and aspirations undergo rapid changes in mini-generational timeframes. (Optimistically, green technologies suggest industrialization does not HAVE to be so industrial.)

    While such changes are positive from the population perspective, consumers as opposed to subsistence farmers consume, not just make use of, natural resources. The One Child policy in China shows that people respond only to intrinsic desires, not incentives and disincentives. Therefore increased economic stability and opportunity is the only way to successfully address population. While this will ease all other problems, it does/will create other problems in regard to consumption, GHG, water use, etc.

    So by the time you draw a conceptual loop around all the related issues, including birth control religion, corruption and North-South trade and cultural dynamics, you realize:
    1) we have to solve all the problems at once ‘in the same room’ (climate change and other crises teach us the same thing)
    2) only transparency and new mindset will give us the capacity to do so
    3) we’re all in this together
    4) all parties will have to go beyond their traditional parameters and comfort zones–being comfortable with being uncomfortable
    5) all ideas must be considered in the absence of pre-existing prejudice
    6) those engaged in this problem-solving at the highest level should be solutions-minded and systems thinkers, as opposed to reductionists defending long-held canonical beliefs

    Lastly, those tasked with this process, including those at opposite ends of the spectrum, should be locked into the same building until they have come to a working implementable effective agreement. (Those Copenhagen delegates might have come to some other accord if their Holidays had been in doubt.)

    The challenges that

  2. Anon Says:

    As a proponent of both equal rights and family planning, I would like to call for men to have better birth control options brought forward, not only women. Their current only choice has an unacceptably high failure rate. When men have the chance to choose when and if they will become fathers, there is a likelihood that unwanted childbirths will decline, population growth will be better kept in check, and fathers will be more willing to support and care for their wanted and planned offspring.

  3. Ronald E. Maxson Says:

    Your refutations are well considered, but the truth of the matter is even worse: 9 billion is simply unsustainable not only for the reasons you cite but because of the attendant pollution as well as the depletion of natural resources–and there is no political will to tackle these dire circumstances.
    In fact, by 2050 civilization will almost certainly have collapsed, and it’s not all that much of a stretch to think that humanity itself will be extinct before the end of the century.

  4. Bridget Says:

    This is a great article. I read an article a few weeks ago about the importance of science in agriculture and how we can move forward with intensive sustainable agriculture. But for some reason I didn’t even think about costs. There is no way that the countries that need the food and modern farming techniques can afford them. It seems like there are so many problems arising all at once that there somehow isn’t enough money to pay for all of them. And this might seem stupid but it makes me question what money really is. I don’t understand why we need this paper thing that we’ve created to pay for the problems that we have created. It doesn’t seem at all logical now. Although, I don’t think there is any way around it.

  5. Asteroid Miner Says:

    Feeding 9 Billion people: “grain embargoes by Russia and (possibly) Ukraine” were caused by Global Warming [GW or AGW]. The climate HAS changed in Russia. And that is exactly what we expect GW to do. Not that the scientists predicted it would be Russia or this year. It is just that when the climate changes, agriculture goes off the tracks somewhere or in many places.

    In theory, IF CLIMATE CHANGE WERE NOT HAPPENING, and if the market system was perfect, and if wealth was evenly distributed, and if genetic engineering keeps delivering the goods and if etcetera etcetera etcetera, then we could feed 9 billion people. NONE of those things is going to happen.

    In actual fact, THE CLIMATE HAS CHANGED, and THE CLIMATE IS CONTINUING TO CHANGE AT AN ACCELERATING PACE. Genetic engineering and the other agricultural sciences, no matter how good, cannot create crops for an unknown future climate. Farmers in Illinois and Iowa have not accepted the fact that the climate has changed, so they are still planning next year’s crop as if the calendar still said “1950.”

    Feeding 9 billion people in 2050 is a pipe dream unless the food is completely synthetic. Synthetic food is unlikely. Conclusion: I would be willing to believe a world population of 700,000 in 2050, 99.99% having died in the famine.

    Take a really extreme case: Exponential increase in population leads to the total weight of people exceeding the weight of the Earth. This is obviously not possible on Earth. There are always cheaters on population control. Therefore, there are population crashes.

    There is a way for there to exist 9 billion people all at once, just not on Earth. The whole solar system could support maybe 50 billion people. The whole galaxy could support perhaps [wilder guess] 50 billion billion people. Further growth requires leaving Earth! In order to leave Earth, we first have to conquer the Global Warming problem, which means conquering ourselves.

  6. Richard Bruce Says:

    In 1998 about 60% of the worlds population lived in low income countries, eleven years later in 2009 only 12 to 13% of the world’s population lived in low income countries as defined by the World Bank.

    At recent rates of growth China will be a high income country in about a decade. India is likely to be a high income country before 2050. It is quite likely that there will be no low income countries, and perhaps no lower middle income countries by that time.

    Nature magazine is probably a lot closer to the truth than Robert J. Walker.

  7. ali Says:

    While i really enjoyed this article. I thought your ending comment was idiotic. Yes, while 200 million women in the world would like to use modern forms of birth control providing it to them would certainly not be easy. I would like to know how many of those 200 million women have any control over how many babies they have. In middle eastern countries where women are not allowed to show their face or must walk behind their husband, how is providing birth control easy? In African countries where men assert themselves and prove how “manly” they are by the number of women they rape, how is providing birth control easy?

  8. DurangoKid Says:

    If world oil production is peaking in the near term, or has peaked already, at 85 Mbbl/day, at a modest depletion rate of 3% per year daily crude production in 2050 will be about 25 Mbbl/day. Per capita oil consumption will not be distributed evenly. It seems likely that a large fraction of the world’s population will no longer have access to hydrocarbon energy for any purpose. This in cluded the shipping of food from where it’s produced to where it is consumed. Human and animal powered agriculture feeds far fewer people per farmer. And, animals need foot for their upkeep. Even in developed countries, more human labor will be required to produce food. That effect will cause prices to rise in real terms. We could also expect disruptions in the corporate agribusiness model of food production as energy intensive methods begin to fail. It also seems unreasonable to expect that soil depletion will be halted or reversed in this timeframe. Both per capita energy and fertility are in decline. Does it seem reasonable to expect higher food production in such circumstances?

  9. DurangoKid Says:

    If world oil production is peaking in the near term, or has peaked already, at 85 Mbbl/day, at a modest depletion rate of 3% per year daily crude production in 2050 will be about 25 Mbbl/day. Per capita oil consumption will not be distributed evenly. It seems likely that a large fraction of the world’s population will no longer have access to hydrocarbon energy for any purpose. This includes the shipping of food from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed. Human and animal powered agriculture feeds far fewer people per farmer. And, animals need food for their upkeep. Even in developed countries, more human labor will be required to produce food. That effect will cause prices to rise in real terms. We could also expect disruptions in the corporate agribusiness model of food production as energy intensive methods begin to fail. It also seems unreasonable to expect that soil depletion will be halted or reversed in this timeframe. Both per capita energy and fertility are in decline. Does it seem reasonable to expect higher food production in such circumstances?

  10. SailDog Says:

    I personally do not believe population numbers will ever reach 9.5bn. In fact I think it highly unlikely there will ever be 8bn. All sorts of vital things are at or past peak: oil (perhaps the most critical), arable land, per capita availability of water, rare earth metals to name but a few. With these vital commodities in short supply our ultra sophisticated global economic system will become much less efficient. More and more people will become impoverished and the famine will increase. Peak population is coming soon as well.

    The broader story is we cannot look at these things in isolation. Population lies at the root of all our problems and the symptoms are many: climate change, resource depletion and pollution. They all need to be considered together.

  11. Felicia Alongi Says:

    Please check out our short film we made about our successful effort to grow more than enough food for ourselves in our own ordinary backyard in less than one year. We are able to do this with ambient sun and rain, while building topsoil. This is a 7th grade effort that resulted just from taking a permaculture class.

    http://www.akamaibackyard.com

    If people returned to the habit of growing food rather than ornamental plants in their ‘yardens’, we may be able to at least shift our trend toward food security and independence from the oligarchy. We all owe it to each other to each do our part to protect the health of the planet and people through wide scale, individual polyculture food production.

    Our environment is easier than most, but growing even some food is better than none.

    With aloha to all,
    Akamai Learning
    Kauai

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