In case you missed it, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced important news yesterday. According to FAO, by 2050 the world will need 70 percent more food (compared to what we produce today) in order to feed an expected population of 9.1 billion. This projection serves as a reminder that in order to feed the growing human race, some agricultural systems are simply more workable than others.
We haven’t seen any Chicken Little reactions (yet), but they could be similar to ones in the past. Doomsday writer Paul Ehrlich wrongly predicted back in the 1970s (in The Population Bomb) that a global famine was forthcoming because the number of people was growing faster than food production. Norman Borlaug later helped prove Ehrlich and other naysayers wrong, through the creation and propagation of genetically modified (GM) food in Third World countries. Borlaug was credited with saving the lives of over 1 billion people through his efforts.
Producing 70 percent more food will inevitably require more advances in biotechnology, along with wider use of existing GM foods. And the global food prescription favored by some ideologically driven foodies, like author Michael Pollan, would take us backward in food production.
According to Pollan, we should eat more “local” food (read: organic), avoid “cheap” food (read: non-organic), and generally pay more for everything we eat.
Borlaug himself had sharp words for such organic elitism in a 2000 interview:
Even if you could use all the organic material that you have—the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues—and get them back on the soil, you couldn’t feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.
At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.
Living an “ethical” food lifestyle (whatever that means to you) and paying $4 for a bunch of parsnips is certainly one choice available to everyone in America who can afford it. But returning to pre-industrial agriculture techniques is not going to feed the rest of the world in future decades. Nor is it a particularly “sustainable” method of agriculture, since it requires more land to produce the same amount of food. Or less food, in some cases
We have many questions for the Michael Pollans of the world, but here’s the biggest one: Under your system, who will get to eat, and who won’t?