Is There Enough Food Out There For Nine Billion People ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The New Matilda has an interesting article by James Arvanitakis looking at the debate prompted by the 2010 Intergenerational Report and pointing out its not the size of our population is that matters, its how we structure our economy to support the population in a sustainable way - Right Room, Wrong Elephant.

Photo courtesy flickr/photonquantique

In a parliamentary speech on global environmental issues delivered late last year, ALP MP Kelvin Thomson said it was time to discuss the environmental elephant in the room. At the time, you'd have been forgiven for assuming he was fed up with the shortcomings of Kevin Rudd's climate policy as the Government focused all its attention on outmanoeuvring Malcolm Turnbull, rather than addressing the problems with its ETS.

Actually, the elephant Thomson wanted to talk about was population growth, both here and globally. Thomson read out a long list of global issues, from traffic congestion and waste, to global warming and terrorism, and explained how the population explosion was at the base of each of these problems.

Now, a couple of months later, the issue of population as a so-called "elephant in the room" is front and centre. Driven by the release of the 2010 Intergenerational Report — as well as by a Prime Minister who seems genuinely excited by the prospect of an Australian population of 35 million — everyone is talking about this particular elephant. Buying into the debate, entrepreneur Dick Smith and former NSW premier, Bob Carr, have both warned that this level of growth will lead to ecological disaster and that Australia is unlikely to be able to handle many more people.

For myself and many of my colleagues, however, this issue is far from being a new one. Population and sustainability are concerns that we see raised constantly in our work and we have seen that, while the motivations of those raising the concerns may vary significantly, the way the population question plays out is very specific. There's just one question we are asked again and again: "What is the right population number for Australia?"

Is it a valid question? Well, perhaps, but before we even try to answer it, we need to understand that there is another elephant in the room. This one has been pointed out by British social commentator George Monbiot, and it's one that Kelvin Thomson and his contemporaries have chosen to ignore: that those worrying most about population seem to be post-reproductive middle aged, comfortable white men who have reached a certain level of material success. Further, Monbiot reminds us, the population explosion is the one environmental problem that this high energy consuming sub-section of the population can not actually be blamed for.

In other words, to ask questions about an ideal population size completely misses the point.

On a related note, Science has a paper on the radical" changes to the current global food system required to support the expanded global population we'll see in a couple of decades time - "Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People".

The primary recommendations of the report are:

* "Closing the Yield Gap" (achieving "best practice" results everywhere)
* Increasing Production Limits
* Reducing Waste of Food
* Changing Diets (primarily eating less meat)
* Expanding Aquaculture
A threefold challenge now faces the world: 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.

Patterns in global food prices are indicators of trends in the availability of food, at least for those who can afford it and have access to world markets. Over the past century, gross food prices have generally fallen, leveling off in the past three decades but punctuated by price spikes such as that caused by the 1970s oil crisis. In mid-2008, there was an unexpected rapid rise in food prices, the cause of which is still being debated, that subsided when the world economy went into recession. However, many (but not all) commentators have predicted that this spike heralds a period of rising and more volatile food prices driven primarily by increased demand from rapidly developing countries, as well as by competition for resources from first-generation biofuels production. Increased food prices will stimulate greater investment in food production, but the critical importance of food to human well-being and also to social and political stability makes it likely that governments and other organizations will want to encourage food production beyond that driven by simple market mechanisms. The long-term nature of returns on investment for many aspects of food production and the importance of policies that promote sustainability and equity also argue against purely relying on market solutions.

So how can more food be produced sustainably? In the past, the primary solution to food shortages has been to bring more land into agriculture and to exploit new fish stocks. Yet over the past 5 decades, while grain production has more than doubled, the amount of land devoted to arable agriculture globally has increased by only ~9%. Some new land could be brought into cultivation, but the competition for land from other human activities makes this an increasingly unlikely and costly solution, particularly if protecting biodiversity and the public goods provided by natural ecosystems (for example, carbon storage in rainforest) are given higher priority. In recent decades, agricultural land that was formerly productive has been lost to urbanization and other human uses, as well as to desertification, salinization, soil erosion, and other consequences of unsustainable land management. Further losses, which may be exacerbated by climate change, are likely. Recent policy decisions to produce first-generation biofuels on good quality agricultural land have added to the competitive pressures. Thus, the most likely scenario is that more food will need to be produced from the same amount of (or even less) land. Moreover, there are no major new fishing grounds: Virtually all capture fisheries are fully exploited, and most are overexploited.

Recent studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050. In this article, major strategies for contributing to the challenge of feeding 9 billion people, including the most disadvantaged, are explored. Particular emphasis is given to sustainability, as well as to the combined role of the natural and social sciences in analyzing and addressing the challenge.

Related posts :

* The Fat Man, The Population Bomb And The Green Revolution
* Norman Borlaug: Saint Or Sinner ?


Not sure if you saw this about Australia food security...

O.K. last peak food comment ;-)

Is TOD covering the ratio curve RE resources of fuels to food?

I cited this link to a recent post:

"On average, our basic food costs have increased by an incredible 48% over the last year"

Food increases make oil and metals stocks look like losers.

It appears energy, conservation and environmental programs will lose focus and funding just to stave off hunger in g8 nations over the next decade. When ironically they are the root cause of it all...

Regardless a good campfire tune.

Thanks - not sure if I saw that particular article but there has been plenty of debate on the subject lately.

We are actually still a very large net food exporter - there has been a lot of misinformation bandied around.

A lot of large agribusiness is now foreign owned though, so from an economic point of view we may not be a net food producer perhaps...

I have a few fears... not for US or AUS in the short term.

Sure there will be self inflicted fiscal stupidity followed by endless war on resources(always).

Yet this simple math of Russian resources to population ratio vs. China... is bad math.

Two massive land locked nations with immense tech/mil power, yet one has all the food and energy with low population the other with the opposite.

Just fearful math:

Lets look past oil, coal and NG limits...the NEED for simple food and clean water could create an end war.

Can't feed 9 billion, but if a nation levels that number to 4???

I can't be the only one with a healthy fear of these numbers.

It is why there should be great interest in helping China and India with their growth explosions.

We in EU waste more than 50% of our food even before it gets to consumer!
So if we rationalize food distribution we ca feed 12 billion people now!
Without any agriculture improvements!

People are not hungry because there is not enough food, but because they don't have money to buy it!

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