Will We Run Out of Food?

There is a theory circulating on the world wide web that I recently came across. In this theory, some argue that we will run out of food by 2050. How possible is a crisis like this? We already see food shortages on store shelves, but much of this can be attributed to supply chain issues resulting from COVID. Simply put, the world hasn’t bounced back.  Combined with increasing costs to manufacture, it is the perfect storm. Or is it?

Yes, We Will

One of the biggest proponents of this theory is Professor Julian Cribb, an author, journalist, editor, and science communicator with extensive work that includes over 8000 articles, 3000 media releases, eight books, and 32 awards for journalism. In his book, “The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It,” he explores whether we can feed humanity as it peaks in numbers and food demand. According to Professor Cribb, food shortage is “arriving faster than climate change.” He argues that shortages of water, land, and energy, combined with increased demand from the growing population, will all lead to a food shortage. 

By 2050, there will be almost 10 billion people on the planet. Scientists argue that following current trends, food demand will have increased by 70 percent. The problem is that there are limits to the Earth’s capacity to feed humanity. According to Harvard sociobiologist Edward Wilson, the world’s farmland could not support more than 10 billion people. Furthermore, if everyone shares the same diet as the average American, this number drops to 2.5 billion people. Why? A meat-eating population requires more energy for production than vegetables. (For example, it takes 75 times more energy to produce meat than corn and 54 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of protein versus 2-3 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of protein from wheat.)  

Coupled with this, scientists estimate that we have already lost one-third of the Earth’s soil in the last 40 years. We are exploiting the Earth beyond its limits and producing more waste than it can absorb. Scientists who study this phenomenon have shown that we are losing our topsoil (the upper layer of soil containing the most organic matter and microorganisms) at an increasing rate – currently 75 billion tonnes per year. It can take 500 to 1,000 years for just one inch of topsoil to form. According to them, at this rate, we will need two planets by 2030 without drastic change.

Then we get to deforestation and overfishing. Globally, approximately 29% of our forests remain as we clear them to make way for farmland. Our oceans are in danger of being emptied (read about this issue in my previous blog Go Fish!).   According to scientists, it can often take decades for a forest to develop and thirty years for oceans to return to their former glory, assuming they are left untouched. The world is already experiencing difficulty feeding everyone and reaching those in countries with the most need. Conflict and Covid-19 have played a significant role in food insecurity, but until recently, these food shortages were most evident in third-world countries and not in our backyard.  

No, We Won’t

It is no secret that we are not kind to Mother Earth. Between one-third and one-half of all the food is wasted before it reaches us. We use approximately 90 billion tonnes of natural resources to produce the foods we eat. We are destroying our forests, our oceans, and our farmland. With all of this in mind, how can anyone argue that there is no problem? They don’t. We are destroying the Earth, and that does have to change. We are not, however, going to run out of food. According to the American Council on Science and Health, we love making predictions of death and destruction. Hollywood has made billions on apocalyptic movies. Politicians and fanatical leaders tell a tale that the Earth is toast. Why? There is a lot of money to be made. 

Over the years, many people have argued that the world population would grow so immense that we couldn’t feed ourselves anymore. One of the first advocates was Thomas Malthus, an 18th-century British philosopher/economist who developed the Malthusian growth model, an exponential formula used to project population growth. He argued that food production would not be able to keep up with the increase in the human population, resulting in disease, famine, war, and calamity. He was wrong.

Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich, and his wife, resuscitated this argument 170 years later in the book, The Population Bomb (1968). He warned of the perils of overpopulation – mass starvation, societal upheaval, environmental deterioration – all within decades. They were wrong.

Today, companies like Gro Intelligence, an agriculture data company, once again claim this will happen. Supporters of this theory are taking official reports, like the UN’s FAO report, and misconstruing its findings to support their ideas.   Will they too be wrong?

The American Council on Science argues that we have long speculated that food shortages might happen. Still, we are always wrong because technology and human adaptation have outpaced the growing population. As far as the UN’s findings are concerned, they argue that the caloric intake per person will rise from 2,770 calories to 3,050 calories by 2050. This statement does not mean we will run out of food. The more significant issue of their report is that we must address food distribution. Governments need to work to decrease poverty and get food into the hands of the people who need it.

Will We Run Out of Food?

No, not likely. We have many problems on our planet, but this is not one of them. We are aware of the damage we are doing to Earth’s topsoil and doing things to correct this issue. Large-scale farms practice crop rotation to allow different plants to grow in an area of soil yearly. Agroforestry, agriculture incorporating the cultivation and conservation of trees, is becoming standard practice. Permaculture, agricultural ecosystems that are sustainable and self-sufficient, are also becoming increasingly popular. It is in the best interest of farmers to care for their soil, considering this is the lifeblood of their production of goods. 

Image: Tapani Hellmann

In addition to the farmers’ conservation initiatives, there is a growing trend toward agricultural modification. Scientists at the University of California are working to develop climate-resilient crops such as chickpeas, cowpeas (black-eyed peas), and millet. DNA marker-assisted breeding, which uses genetic analysis to find and isolate specific desired traits in foods, creates more resilient and faster-growing versions of these foods. One such example is rice. A staple food in many third-world countries, it faces significant crop losses due to seasonal flooding. At the University of California, plant pathology professor Pamela Ronald and her colleagues developed flood-tolerant rice. At these same labs, another top-ten staple crop, bananas, were made resilient to fast-advancing fungal diseases. This not only increases the food output but also decreases the loss.

As far as our oceans go, they are already at a crisis point. The good news is that aquaculture, the controlled process of breeding, rearing, and harvesting fish, shellfish, plants, and algae, is rising. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) estimates that aquatic food production will increase by 15% by 2030. Already, we are producing 87.5 million tonnes of aquatic animals and 35.1 million tonnes of algae in these environments. With the projections for global demand for animal proteins doubling over the next four decades, aquaculture may provide a vital option for sustainable and ecologically-friendly foods.

We need not worry that we won’t have food to enjoy our Thanksgiving or Christmas meals anytime soon. We should, however, do everything we can to ensure we are protecting our planet for the generations to come. Protecting Earth ensures that we never run out of food.

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