Feeding the Future

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.

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  • Bart Hall

    The problem is not so much with meat, but which sorts of meat and (especially) how it is produced. Ruminant animals — cattle, sheep, goats, bison, water buffalo, yaks, and so on — produce excellent meat from grass. Grass is the great healer of the land and is the only way to halt desertification. Please take the time to watch this video in which such things are explained exquisitely well.

    Pork and poultry require much more grain, but can be raised on types and grades of grain generally unfit for human consumption.


    • ljgude

      Well said Bart Hall. I grew up on a farm in New Hampshire and what Allan Savory says in that TED talk makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve also spent time in Zimbabwe and driven all over the north of Australia. I know that unscientific overgrazing made large sections of Western Australia into desert. Looking at that map in the TED talk about desertification I see that it is a problem right across the same area where the US just closed embassies. I don’t know the agricultural problems of the entire area but I do know that Egypt and Syria both have full fledged agricultural crises. Egypt only produces 50% of its own food. I keep thinking why isn’t anyone talking about hiring agricultural experts to address Egyptian agricultural production. I don’t think cows and grass are the solution in the Nile valley, but what Egypt needs first is food. Like the man said – desertification may well be bigger than the problems caused by fossil fuels. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse which avoids the more egregious Green apocalyptic thinking – despite the book’s title. – starts out with and stays with farming ancient and modern. And makes the case that bad farming techniques have caused the most dramatic historical collapses of civilizations. Great comment.

    • rheddles

      Thank you.

    • Bart Hall

      I should probably have added that I’m an agronomist by training and earn my living as a farmer, eschewing the government subsidies for which I’m eligible.

      Feeding cows as though they are pigs — feedlots — is pathologically stupid.

  • Pait

    Are we sure that the Population Bomb never materialized? The direst predictions have not, yet; but too many countries with exploding populations are almost ungovernable. And economic growth has come in places where population growth came under expectations, such as China and Latin America.

  • USNK2

    Brazil’s sugar cane for ethanol should NOT be included in either 1) “biofuel boondoggle”, or 2) potential arable land for food.
    Brazil committed to energy independence after the 1973 oil embargo, and the result is a vehicle fleet that can run on sugar ethanol, and the waste mass is used to produce electricity.
    (Brazil’s deepwater oil drilling completed their hydrocarbon independence).
    Better to call for America’s suburbs built on farmland to be razed and returned to efficient agriculture than single out Brazil for doing what America can not. Even de-populated urban neighborhoods, e.g., Detroit, could redevelop some neighborhoods into fruit orchards…
    Who thinks Planet Earth’s fresh water can sustain present population, let alone another four billion humans?
    I just wish I had a house-sized micro- waste-to-energy generator that used crabgrass for fuel. Win-win!

  • AD_Rtr_OS

    That’s all well and good, until the New Ice Age materializes.

  • lukelea

    On a global scale the Malthusians have been proven wrong time and again. Unfortunately they only need to be proven right one time in order to win the argument. The higher the anti-Malthusians rise, the harder they fall?

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