A new report out last week in the journal Environmental Research Letters finds that it is theoretically possible to not only feed the world’s current population with current crops and agricultural technology—we could potentially feed 4 billion more. Malthusians have been warning that humans have charted a course towards apocalypse as we grow beyond the limits of our planet’s natural resources. While the Population Bomb movement’s more dire predictions never materialized, the question of how we’ll manage to feed future generations remains an important one to consider.
This paper’s authors attempted to account for the gap between the amount of edible crops grown and the amount of calories humans collectively consume. The biggest inefficiencies come from meat consumption: just three percent of the calories going in to the beef production process (feeding cattle) end up as calories consumed by humans in the form of a steak or a hamburger.
But it’s not just meat-eaters responsible for agricultural inefficiencies. The biofuel boondoggle—using arable cropland and edible crops like corn to produce ethanol and diesel fuel—is increasingly straining global food security. Corn and sugarcane used for biofuel production in the US and Brazil accounted for 6 percent of global crop production by mass in 2010.
The authors conclude that shifting crop allocation away from animal feed and biofuel production towards human consumption could increase global calorie availability by 70 percent, feeding an additional 4 billion people. Biofuels don’t make sense any way you look at them, and we’re all for ending that particular boondoggle. But we can’t imagine the world’s growing masses will all willingly put down the bacon in favor of kale. Still, it makes sense to start looking at ways to more efficiently convert crops into calories, and laboratory-grown meat might be a good place to start. Beyond that, we should continue to invest in technologies that produce more arable land and create more with less.