Hope for Feeding the World
05 APR 2010: OPINION
I bring good news from Machakos, a rural district of Kenya, a couple of hours drive from
Since independence in 1963, the Akamba’s population has more than doubled. Meanwhile, farm output has risen tenfold. Yet there are also more trees, and soil erosion is much reduced. The Akamba still use simple farming techniques on their small family plots. But today they are producing so much food that when I visited, they were selling vegetables and milk in
What made the difference? People. They made this transformation by utilizing their growing population to dig terraces, capture rainwater, plant trees, raise animals that provide manure, and introduce more labor-intensive but higher-value crops like vegetables. For them, “multiplication” of their numbers has been the solution rather than the problem. They have sprung the demographic trap.
The story of Machakos convinces me that humanity is not done yet — our ingenuity may still save us from succumbing to planetary limits, and we can feed a growing world population.
For most of human existence, the land appeared limitless. Whenever populations grew too large for comfort, societies occupied new land. But by the 1960s, most of the best land was taken and the frontiers were being pushed up inhospitable mountainsides onto poorer soils, and into the last tropical rainforests.
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Paul Ehrlich famously declared in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, in which he predicted widespread famine because of overpopulation.
But human ingenuity stepped in. In the past half century, thanks to the “green revolution,” the world has added just 10 percent to farmland but more than doubled food production.
What next? The world was brought up short in 2008 by soaring food prices on international markets. Politicians were unnerved as food riots broke out in more than a dozen countries. Prospect magazine headlined “The Return of Malthus.” We may now be able to feed nearly 7 billion people. But world population is expected to reach 9 or 10 billion later this century. Can we feed them all?
Pessimists have a point. We are undermining agriculture by damaging water and soils. We use more than half of the world’s river flows each year, mostly to irrigate crops. We are recklessly mining irreplaceable underground water reserves. By some estimates, a third of the world’s fields are losing soil faster than natural processes can create it. And now comes the threat of climate change.
But bleak though the figures are, they are no worse than those in the 1960s. Just as then, they reveal not natural limits but the current limits of our competence, both political and technical. Feeding the world in the 21st century requires doing things dramatically better.
The “green revolution” is still keeping pace with population. The trouble is that consumption of grain is growing faster, driven by the world’s growing appetite for biofuels and for meat and dairy products. Of the two billion tons of grain grown around the world, less than half is eaten directly by people.
Paradoxically, this is good news, says
A second cause for optimism is that farm yields in most of the world are a small fraction of the potential using existing seeds. Africans typically grow one ton of grain on a hectare, Asians grow three tons and Europeans and North Americans upwards of five tons. Futurologist Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University in New York says that “if during the next 50 years or so, the world’s farmers reached the average yield of today’s U.S. corn grower, ten billion could be fed with only half of today’s cropland, while they eat today’s U.S. calories.”
That may be far-fetched. But the flipside of our reckless management of water and soils is that we could do things so much better. Conservation farming has vast potential to protect soils. And simple drip irrigation systems could halve global water use by farmers. It’s not rocket science. It’s just tubes with holes in.
Of course, it is one thing to ensure there is enough food on the global dinner table, but quite another to make sure everyone has a seat at the table. Subsistence farming communities make up the majority of the world’s hungry. It matters little to them whether the global grain warehouses are full if their village granaries are empty.
The next agricultural revolution needs to get local. It needs to help these poor farming communities find ways to manage their own soils better by using livestock to fertilize soils, conserving rainwater in case of drought, breeding and exchanging local crop varieties, and finding natural predators for troublesome pests.
In particular we are talking about
But such pessimism is dangerous. It echoes the Malthusian fatalism that the British used to excuse their inaction during the Irish potato famine a century and a half ago: “nothing to be done... too many people... brought it on themselves... better let the carnage play out.”
More importantly, the idea of overpopulated
Robert Watson, chair of the UN’s International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, which reported in 2008, says of
It can be done. Good news is not hard to find in
Machakos is certainly not unique. In the highlands of western
There will be exceptions — distressing situations where farmers are unable to rescue their declining environments, and places where fast-rising populations trigger a dangerous tailspin of decline, and where land disputes, war, and bad government leaves communities incapable of harnessing their human resources. But to suggest that
And as with