One of the enduring mistakes that population alarmists have made over the centuries (ever since Thomas Malthus recommended crowding the poor together to encourage population-limiting plague) is to view all additional children born as only resource-consuming units. Instead, as we’ve argued before, people are also resource-creating. We do not sit there and simply use up food, water and air, instead we also innovate and create new ways of feeding the world and utilising resources for everyone. Our world population is about seven times greater than it was in Malthus’ time, yet the vast majority of us lead richer, healthier lives than the crowned heads of Europe could have dreamed of in 1800. (Those that hadn’t already lost their heads of course; and those who had not been deposed by the violent tidal wave of revolutionary France.) Indeed, people are on the whole better fed than ever before, and despite there still being hunderds of millions of people living in poverty and suffering hunger, the numbers, both as a proportion of the overall population and absolutely, are coming down.
All of that is useful to keep in mind as we read about a new report that has been released by the World Resources Institute (WRI) about how to feed growing numbers of people in the decades ahead. The report, entitled “Creating a sustainable food future: final report” tries to square the circle: how to produce more food on the same land area, stop deforestation and cut carbon emissions from food production drastically.
Agriculture currently uses half of the world’s vegetated land and consumes nine-tenths of the water used by people worldwide and contributes a quarter of all global carbon emissions. To increase production requires using our current resources more efficiently. As we have noted before on this blog, about a third of the food currently produced is wasted either before it gets to consumers, or by consumers. If all of this wasted food was eaten, then the requirement for 30 per cent more food by the middle of the 21st century would be met. Some of the ways to do this are political (fewer wars) and some of the ways are technological (like solar-powered cold-storage units on farms).
Other concrete suggestions made in the report include reducing the amount of meat eaten and replacing it with more plants. The production of meat is more resource intensive than growing crops. So if meat demand were to decline, then more food could be produced with fewer resources. One way to do this is to reduce or eliminate the nearly $hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies given by governments to meat and dairy production. (Coming from a low subsidy nation trying to sell meat and dairy to the world, I strongly support this suggestion!)
Other technological changes include better crop breeding techniques, and perhaps the fine tuning of crop genes, will maximise yields by allowing more than one crop harvest per year. A different political solution is to eliminate the $35 billion in annual global fisheries subsidies to reduce overfishing. Using seaweed, algae or oil seeds-based fish foods in aquaculture is also a better alternative than relying on small fish to feed larger fish like salmon.
Interestingly, the report is being criticised for relying too much on technology and less on the UN-favoured approach of “agroecology” (in which nature is mimicked so that external inputs like chemical fertiliser are replaced with knowledge of how a combination of plants, trees and animals can enhance the productivity of the land.) The UN’s own report on food production favoured agroecology since it was seen as more sustainable. However, one of the authors of the WRI report, Richard Waite argues that although the word “agroecology” isn’t used, the report’s recommendations also include things that could be called that. (What’s in a name?) Waite says that “overemphasis on agroecology as ‘the’ solution crowds out the very real needs for also advancing technological innovation”. One hopes that buzzwords and on trend ideas are not going to see more prosaic, perhaps more technological, solutions being ignored. But these ideas and solutions for increasing our food supply come from people, will be implemented by people and will be paid for by people. We are not just resource-consumers; the Malthusians of the world are wrong.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.