The Reasoned Review

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Is There Enough Food for 9 Billion People?

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Science has a fantastic paper on food scarcity in the 21st century:

A threefold challenge now faces the world (9): Match the rapidly changing demand for food from a larger and more affluent population to its supply; do so in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable; and ensure that the world’s poorest people are no longer hungry. This challenge requires changes in the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed, and accessed that are as radical as those that occurred during the 18th- and 19th-century Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions and the 20th-century Green Revolution. Increases in production will have an important part to play, but they will be constrained as never before by the finite resources provided by Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere (10).

Any optimism must be tempered by the enormous challenges of making food production sustainable while controlling greenhouse gas emission and conserving dwindling water supplies, as well as meeting the Millennium Development Goal of ending hunger. Moreover, we must avoid the temptation to further sacrifice Earth’s already hugely depleted biodiversity for easy gains in food production, not only because biodiversity provides many of the public goods on which mankind relies but also because we do not have the right to deprive future generations of its economic and cultural benefits. Together, these challenges amount to a perfect storm.

Science studiously avoids giving a definite answer to the question implied in their article, instead plumping for various methods by which we can increase food production (aquaculture, reducing waste, changing diets, etc). The article definitely deserves points for putting sustainable agriculture front-and-center. As most of you know, our food is currently made of oil. Oil makes the fertilizer that makes the crops we eat. Nitrogen is generally the limiting factor in any agricultural enterprise, and without oil it remains unclear how we will be able to fix the massive amounts of atmospheric nitrogen that currently go into our fertilizers.

As always, the crux of this problem comes down to overpopulation. Cost-saving methods and changing diets may hold off the inevitable famines until after we’re all dead (2100) – but that does nothing for future generations. Unless we can remove the implacable human urge (some would say “right”) to breed, its clear that hard times are on the horizon. I don’t admit to know the solution to overpopulation; any answer one might give raises all sorts of ethical problems: Who should be allowed to have children? How many? How to regulate it?

These and kindred questions need answering, and fast – but for the time being our policymakers and even our general populations are content to have as many children as they can afford. This is not a solution.


Written by pavanvan

February 21, 2010 at 11:11 am

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