It is impossible to know how many people are currently alive, but the best estimate suggests today the figure passes seven billion people. One worries about what the world will look like in 2050 or 2100. Some argue, as they do with energy, that some magic bullet will be found - after all, mechanized farming and two green revolutions allowed us to move from one to seven billion people. Unfortunately past revolutions are no guarantee new and sufficiently good revolutions will appear. There is also the sad fact that the world currently does not support seven billion people without hunger - as currently about a billion people are malnourished and few of us seem to worry very much.
I spend a lot of time thinking about energy and its flow through society. One of the larger components is associated with food and it is clear we are up against several severe limits - available farmland, water and climate change to name a few. One can imagine several back of the envelope changes that would make enormous differences, but how practical are they and how do they interact with other pieces of the puzzle?
Several communities are focused on the problem. One of the more articulate researchers who has been looking at possible paths that don't require the invocation of miracles is Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota. Check out his TED talk
He has a piece in the November, 2011 Scientific American on feeding the planet that explores the subject a bit more deeply focusing on miracle-free steps that could ensure enough food production to nourish the likely 2050 population. I strongly recommend reading it. (the magazine is currently on the newsstands and in most libraries - the digital copy is here). For those of you with a scientific background I strongly recommend a piece that appeared a few weeks ago in Nature:
Solutions for a cultivated planet
Jonathan Foley et al.
Nature 478, 337–342 (20 October 2011
12 October 2011
Increasing population and consumption are placing unprecedented demands on agriculture and natural resources. Today, approximately a billion people are chronically malnourished while our agricultural systems are concurrently degrading land, water, biodiversity and climate on a global scale. To meet the world’s future food security and sustainability needs, food production must grow substantially while, at the same time, agriculture’s environmental footprint must shrink dramatically. Here we analyse solutions to this dilemma, showing that tremendous progress could be made by halting agricultural expansion, closing ‘yield gaps’ on underperforming lands, increasing cropping efficiency, shifting diets and reducing waste. Together, these strategies could double food production while greatly reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture.
The good news is there is an enormous amount of inefficiency in the current system. Some of it is cultural, some political, some economic - but much of it is the result of doing things the way we have been doing and not thinking. There is a lot of hope for creativity and we don't have to rely on solutions that may not appear in the necessary timeframe. If we get busy perhaps we can even save the billion or so people who are starving.