Can We Both Feed the World in a Sustainable Way and Feed it Quality Food?
Question: As a society, we in America seem proud of our desire to help others, and that is of course laudable. In recent years, there is a movement toward more environmentally-friendly food for a number of reasons, nutritional and otherwise. As a huge net exporter of grains and some other foodstuffs, how can we reconcile these two ideas? Can we both feed the world and feed it quality food, or are we doomed to more and more synthetic nutrients as our population balloons, unable to find enough land to plant enough food on to feed all these people in a sustainable way?
Paul Solman: I may be obtuse. Or have read too much science fiction. Or both. Those very real possibilities out of the way, here’s my guess: Technically, we CAN both feed the world and feed it quality food. I don’t think “land” is the constraint. The distribution of income and wealth is.
In the past year, I traveled to the Middle East in March and to Europe in the summer. In Israel, I spent an evening with agronomist Shlomo Abulafia. At one point I asked him: “How many people can the world feed?” He hazarded a guess:
Months later, I was interviewing Cornell-trained agricultural engineering professor Nick Sigrimis. On the side, he runs a small firm which automates greenhouses and fish farms.
“Can the world feed 20 billion people?” I asked him. His answer was itself a question: “Why not?”
What is the production of food? The transformation of molecules and energy (from the sun) into fuel for human beings. Nature has been at the job—adapting the fuel to humans and humans to the fuel—for quite some time. But that doesn’t rule out the possibility that its methods can be tinkered with, improved upon. Think hydroponics.
Yes, every technology has unintended consequences. Sure, the endeavors of man tend to the hubristic. Absolutely, the proliferation of the presumptuously self-dubbed subspecies “homo sapiens sapiens” could foul the atmosphere irremediably or otherwise screw things up.
But my guess is that, whether via “synthetic nutrients” and/or synthetic means of nurturing the “natural” variety, we’ll be able to feed ourselves for quite some time. The United Nation’s forecasts for world population growth are considered among the most careful. The latest ones, from 2009, can be downloaded here.
The MOST PESSIMISTIC forecast in this report has world population hitting about 11 billion by 2050. It doesn’t hit 20 billion until 2200.
“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Mark Twain wrote in 1897. To date, the same has been true of humanity’s.