We currently have enough food to feed the people of our world. But what will our situation be in the 21st Century? Can we produce enough food and conserve natural resources to sustain the population? The world’s population was 5.3 billion in 1990 and is expected to increase to 12.4 billion by the year 2050, thus increasing demands for food groups by 55% for grains, 71% for soybean, 59% for meat and 56% for fish. Eighty four percent of this growth will come from developing countries. Previous generations worked hard to provide us with the best things possible.
Today our society destroys and wastes natural resources, the very thing that I believe are needed to sustain future generations. In North America alone, we waste tremendous amounts of food every day. Forty thousand children die each day from hunger. Worldwide, the number of mouths to feed increases by 90 million. The food versus population issue appears to be a simple matter of producing enough food to supply the population. Is it really that simple? I believe the challenge will be to reduce poverty, balance food supply and demand, and ensure adequate quantities of food.
Poverty may be more cause to blame for hunger than food supply. In no country in the world do rich people go hungry, which leads one to believe that it is more a political issue than a physical one. Governments suffer from the inability to get food to their citizens. In North and South Korea, the North has half as many people as the South, and double the amount of land. Yet, South Korea seems to be more prosperous. In countries where starvation exists, and you can expect to find that country politically unstable. In the case of Africa agricultural technologies exist but have not been adopted. They seem to be more pro-urban and anti-rural in their economic policies. National policy invests little in rural roads, communications or schools, by giving their monies to more urban projects.
This gives the farmer no incentive to increase production or implement new technologies. Equally responsible are government policies that hamper the approval of new technologies. There is lots of technology on the shelf that is not being used. Farmers also need to know that they can sell their products to an expanded market. Countries need to reduce their trade barriers. Since land is not distributed evenly on a global basis, countries with less land will need to import food to feed their people. In my research I found several articles stating that many countries would much prefer exports to imports. They say that food aid actually hurts them more than it helps them, because imports depress the food prices. A world with fewer trade barriers gives farmers the assurance of knowing that they can sell their crops globally. Most important for developing countries will be the stimulation of income.
Population growth in developing countries will account for virtually all the increase in the world’s population. From predictions by the World Bank, International Food Policy Research Institute, Asia will continue to be the largest, with 60% of the world’s population, but that India will be most populated, eventually surpassing China in about year 2040. Population growth will create both threats and opportunities. The threats come from our world’s possible inability to sustain productivity growth and the decreasing of natural resources. The younger generation will present many opportunities to explore new areas of technology, while a growth in senior citizens will increase tourism, medical care and leisure activities. There are currently about 75 million teenagers, who outnumber the seniors 2 to 1, but analysts predict the ratio to change 1 to 1 by year 2030.
In developing countries, poverty is still on the rise. Millions die each year from preventable diseases. 130 million school age children do not attend school. One in ten die before reaching the age of five years. People will little assurance of sustainable lives tend to have more children to insure that some will survive. Numerous studies have proven that when parents know that their children will reach adulthood, they choose to have fewer children. Despite death from AIDS and other similar diseases, birth rates in developing countries are still twice the rate needed to stabilize world population. With an increasing number of young people, come more women who are reaching childbearing age.
Some will say that population control is the key to feeding the world. What some fail to realize is that some of these women do not have a choice of whether to marry, become sexually active or have children, thus also negating the choice of contraceptive usage, education, employment and gender equality. The Population Council estimates that by delaying the onset of child bearing by 2 to 5 years would reduce the eventual world population by more than 7 billion. I do not believe that I have the choice to take away a person’s god given right to have children or not. However, I do support better education in birth control and other preventive measures. The world needs to address the issue of education and health care, including family planning.
Growing strains will be placed on the quality of land, water, depletion of fish stocks, and current patterns of consumption and production. Farmers of the 21st century will be under pressure to produce more fibers, fuel and materials, yet be limited by a finite amount of resources. Lands have been severely degraded through means of human induced erosion and pesticides. Seven hundred sixty million hectares of land is already in production in developing countries. Pessimists say that at current yields, over 3 billion hectares of arable land would be required to feed 12 billion people. There is 3 billion hectares of land that could be arable, but the costs to do so are too expensive. If soil losses can be stopped completely within a century, there might be 2.8 billion hectares of potentially arable land, short of the required 3.1 billion needed.
Even with efforts to protect and preserve the arable land, pessimists say that there will not be enough land to feed the human population. Increases in food must come from increased output, not from increases in arable land. Of greater environmental concern, is in an attempt to double the area or arable land would require massive clearing of forests and destruction of wildlife habitat. Every day humans destroy 46,000 hectares of forest, dumps 2 million tons of carbon into the air by means of various transportation methods, and causes the extinction of approximately 50 species of plants and animals. The U.S., whom is the fastest growing industrialized country, consumes 30% of the world’s resources and produces almost 20% of its waste.
The U.S. diet requires great quantities of grain because much of it is fed to animals to produce meat and dairy products. With agricultural research, new technologies can be implemented that can increase crop output. Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute believes that technology will boost the earth’s annual grain harvest to two billion tons. That would be enough to feed 10 billion people at India’s current nutritional level. But this yield would feed less than half the world’s current population at the present U.S. nutritional level, and 5.7 billion at Italy’s nutritional level. Farmers will need to be able to employ a full range of pest-control strategies.
A study by the National Agricultural Chemical Association, showed that eliminating farm chemicals would cut the production of food in the world by one-third due to losses from insects, rodents, disease and weeds. It is estimated that we lose 45% of potential food production worldwide, 30% due to weeds and insects, and a further 15% after harvest. Research is expensive; therefore biotechnology companies cannot conduct research for people who cannot pay for it. Most of the world’s hungry populous are too poor to buy traditionally bred crops, much less the expensive products researched using biotechnology. Many believe that there is as much land for agricultural purposes today, as there was 50 years ago. I do not believe this is so, due to urban expansion across the world.
As with land, the supply of accessible water is limited. Not all of the waters can be extracted, since some needs to be left in the rivers to safeguard the environment. Agricultural technology is dependent upon irrigation for soil moisture, so that food production can continue, coupled with the application of fertilizers. Water irrigation is a water intensive activity. Irrigated agriculture has proven to be more productive than rain fed agriculture, producing 40 percent of world food production. In countries such as North Africa, water will be needed to provide adequate supplies for cities and for a healthy populace. Africa is also the driest continent and suffers the most from unstable rainfalls. Since Africa’s agricultural production has not kept pace with its population, they are also in trouble nutritionally.
Other countries such as Latin America have plenty of water, but lack water use efficiency and pollution control. Hopefully, as the need for water increases, it will stimulate efforts to develop new water supplies and use current supplies more efficiently. But irrigation can be detrimental by means of fertilizer run-offs, salinization, and environmental pollution. Still, water development for food production constitutes an important element for increasing food security.
By the year 2020, Habitat for Humanity says that two thirds of the world’s people will live in towns and cities. Land is being converted from rural to urban use at three times the rate of urban population growth. Growing up in the country, it was always my mindset that farmers farmed in rural areas and people whom lived in the city traveled to grocery stores and to the farms to obtain their fruits and vegetables. Here in Canada I have noticed a trend of more and more “city gardens” being developed. I seemed to be in a mindset where I separated the place where my food was grown from the place that I lived. The World Bank thinks that towns and cities could produce half of the food needed to sustain the population by the year 2020. They say that as it stands now, urban agriculture produces three to fifteen times as much per hectare as common rural methods.
This is partly due to the amount of urban waste produced, which happens to be seventy percent more organic than rural waste. Using this waste reduces pollution and enriches the soil, thus conserving natural resources. Since urban dwellings are developed closely together, urban farming requires cooperation amongst neighbors. This in turn creates communities and may even connect more people with their sense of nature. Conversely, urbanization is demanding. Currently at 1 billion people, the urban population is expected to grow to 4 billion by 2025. Also, many cities are not located on coastal waters, meaning that their food will have to be imported, if not grown locally. But for those cities that are located near coasts, erosion may become a problem. And as more people move into the cities, their demand for more wheat and meat products will increase.
It isn’t just about grain. Sixty percent of the world’s population depends on fish and seafood for forty percent of its annual protein. Over-fishing has severely depleted stocks of species to the point that may be beyond recovery. Maintaining this natural resource is necessary not only to sustain growth, but also for contributions to biotechnology.
Evolutionary biologist Niles Eldridge believes that the problem doesn’t involve a food/population problem at all, but one of population/ecology. He states that it is the disruption and deterioration of the ecosystem that is threatening food supplies. He uses the termite to illustrate his point. Humans are dependent upon termites for a greater portion of the recycling process of biotic material. Without recycling, no sustainability of life, therefore no food problem. Another point is that of pollination.
Energy conservation needs to be an issue also where population sustainability is concerned. People are not concerned with obtaining coal, oil, or the likes. They do however want what these agents produce, that being the services of energy. While each one of us is challenged to adopt energy conserving methods, countries need to adopt the same attitude. This mainly applies to countries of wealth, as statistics show that they are the worst when it comes to conservation.
Okay, so now let’s suppose that there is enough food to feed the world. How are people going to earn the money to buy the food? In the U.S. subsidized groceries, fertile soil and a bountiful supply of water and energy have spoiled us. Americans spend approximately 15 percent of their disposable income on food. However the poor people of the U.S. spend about one third of their income on food.
CONCLUSION: I think we are capable of producing enough food to sustain the population. But it will take a combined effort on the part of each one of us as well as every country. Education is a good start. More education and awareness of birth control practices will assist in keeping the population under control, if not by reduction. By educating the youth, they will be better able to conduct research and therefore provide better agricultural technology. Pressure needs to be put on our leaders to improve import and export conditions to encourage more production. We need to educate and take an active role in protecting our natural resources, as well as our ecosystem. Feeding the world in the 21st Century will no doubt be a challenge, but if each one of us take an active role in doing our part to improve processes, which dictate our future, the challenge will be feasible.