Will the world run out of food this century?
By Eric Berger
from: World Food Programs
Who are the hungry?
Most of the world’s hungry live in developing countries. According to the latest Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics from 2013, there are 842 million hungry people in the world and 98 percent of them are in developing countries. They are distributed like this:
During the interview Brown laid out a simple formula for a looming crisis in feeding the world.
There are more mouths, he said: We’re adding 80 million people a year, and those 80 million come good weather or bad. That means there will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who weren’t there last night. It’s a very sizable, daily increase in population.
In addition, more people are eating more meat: For the first time in history the growth in demand from affluence, basically rising up the food chain, is the same as population growth. This means people in developing countries are eating more meat, and that is particularly true in China. Half of this year’s world pork consumption will be in China. Worldwide the the annual growth in demand for grain is now greater than at any point in history, and it’s because of this combination of increasing population and rising affluence.
The availability of water is limiting the productivity of land: In every major agricultural region of the world where we’re irrigating with underground water, and that includes the north China plain that produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn, it includes India and that includes the United States, we have extensive overpumping of aquifers and this means we’re creating a water-based food bubble. When the wells start to go dry as aquifers are depleted, then we have this actual shrinkage of the harvest. And we’ve seen this already in some countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, like Yemen, where grain production is declining due to aquifer depletion.
We’ve reached the photosynthetic limit: In about 40 percent of the world’s grain production, farmers have reached the photosynthetic limit on yields. That includes rice in Japan and corn in the United States. If you look at say the last five years you can see the long-term rapid steady growth has sort of plateaued. That’s a new constraint and it’s not one for which we have a solution. Once you’ve eliminated the moisture and nutrient constraints, then it’s photosynthesis that remains. And we don’t have anything more efficient than that. There’s been no increase in wheat yields in France or Germany for a decade.
Thus with more mouths, Brown says, and an increasing desire for meat, the same or less land and the nearing of maximum land productivity, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to feed the world.
The first thing we need to do is to take the population situation seriously.
It’s almost fallen off the table in a sense because policy makers hardly even mention it any more. But you cannot continue to add 80 million people a year to a finite planet without eventually getting into trouble. And I think we’re on the edge of that trouble now. It’s not just filling the family planning gap, although that’s important, it’s creating the social conditions. Raising female literacy. Making sure infants are well nourished so that they will survive. One of the reason that women in developing countries have so many children is they don’t know how many will survive.
Not a popular solution, to be sure. And many will no doubt label Brown as a neo-Malthusian. But the fact is that many trend lines in world population and food and water availability suggest a crisis is indeed coming.
We shall see. Brown will speak at the Progressive Forum in Houston on Sunday.