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