4 June 2008

The coming famine

Cosmos Magazine
What's even scarier than global warming? Julian Cribb argues that feeding the global appetite in an overpopulated, affluent and resource-scarce world could be the scientific challenge of the era.
A single pea on a plate

Mission impossible: The challenge is to double world food output by 2050 using less land, far less water and fewer nutrients – all in the teeth of increasing rates of drought. Credit: iStockphoto

BARRING NUCLEAR WARS, pandemics and cosmic accidents, there will be about 9.1 billion people living in the world in 2050. Yet they will eat as much food as 13 billion people at today’s nutritional levels. So how will we feed them all? The answer to this question could be the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century – greater even than finding a solution to climate change.

The problem is that humanity is consuming more food, year-on-year, than it produces, especially as demand for high-protein food increases in high population developing countries like China and India.

The world is also moving towards a water crisis: cities are now taking up to half of the water that was once used to grow food, while groundwater levels are declining in every country where it is used for food production. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the U.S. suggests that by 2025 water scarcity may inflict an annual loss of 350 million tonnes of food – roughly equivalent to losing today’s global rice harvest or the entire U.S. grain crop.

We’re also losing land; we are building on it, eroding and degrading it, or locking it in conservation reserves. Whatever the cause, the total available area of arable land is now falling. Compounding this, we are losing nutrients in the land we do have.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation notes that we apply about 150 million tonnes of elemental fertiliser to our farms every year; however the U.S. Department of Agriculture points out that we lose six times that amount – an estimated 1.1 billion tonnes of nutrients – through soil erosion and leaching.

The rise of biofuels presents another serious issue since it takes over arable land and diverts resources from food production (see, Non-crop biofuels to boost food security, Cosmos Online). It is estimated that by 2020 we will be burning 400 million tonnes of grain a year – equivalent to the entire world rice crop – just to keep our cars on the road.

And if you thought those figures weren’t alarming enough, then there’s the issue thrown up by climate change. For example, the Peterson Institute for International Economics in the U.S. says “agricultural production in developing countries may fall between 10 and 25 per cent, and if global warming progresses unabated, India’s agricultural capacity could fall as much as 40 per cent.”

In light of all these hurdles, as I see it, the challenge is to double world food output by 2050 using less land, far less water and fewer nutrients – all in the teeth of increasing rates of drought. And we need to do it sustainably.

In Australia, discussion about the future of agriculture has largely been about drought and climate change, and has ignored the fact that the world may be entering a prolonged period of shortages and famines at a time of vastly increased demand for food. At top policy level in Australia and many other countries there is apathy about a potentially grave problem facing humanity in the medium term.

This situation brings with it the very real possibility of regional and global instability. It is already manifest in rising food prices in the U.S., Australia and many other countries around the world. According to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, around 60 per cent of conflicts in the last 15 years have had, at their core, a scarcity of food, land or water.

Many countries, including Australia, have not yet grasped that agricultural policy is defence policy, refugee policy, immigration policy and environmental policy as well as health, food and economic policy. We persist in seeing it as an isolated issue, and we cannot afford to do so for much longer.

I believe we are quite capable of solving these issues through good science and good policy. In the first instance, we need to massively increase global public investment in agricultural research and development. Then we need to make sure the fruits of that research reach farmers everywhere. I also think that commercial wild harvests, such as fishing and forestry, should be phased out in favour of sustainable farming that dovetails with the local environment.

We need to be smarter in the way we design and run our cities, limiting water use and maximising recycling. But we also have to change behaviour, encouraging lower protein and higher vegetable diets. And we should seriously look at ways of peacefully limiting the human population to between two and three billion over the next century.

We solved the problems of food production in the past with the agricultural revolution in the 18th century and the green revolution of the 1960s. Now we need to do it again.

Julian Cribb is adjunct professor in science communication at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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