Pacing Ourselves in the World Hunger Race

In the late 1790s and early 1800s, British economist Thomas Robert Malthus Imageused mathematics, the agronomic reality of the day and basic biology to lay out a grim assessment about the future of the planet: we were doomed to an endless cycle of boom and bust. It was inevitable human populations would periodically grow to the point where demand for food would outstrip supply. At that point populations would crash as a result of famine.

At the time, his prediction made sense, given the limitations of peasant agriculture and the inability to move food from one place to another in an efficient way. But that changed. Malthus could not have foreseen the industrial revolution, hybrid seeds, fertilizers created from fossil fuels or GPS-guided tractors. His predictions also preceded giant leaps in medicine and sanitation, which have caused death rates to plummet. He certainly couldn’t have imagined the “Green Revolution”—plant breeder Norman Borlaug’s post-Word War II miracle that brought us high-yielding (and chemical-intensive) grain varieties.

In a way, the world’s agrarians have spent the past two centuries proving Malthus wrong. As Joel Bourne Jr. points out in his book, The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World, between 1900 and 2000, the Earth’s population quadrupled from 1.6 to 6.1 billion. That’s the largest population increase in history. Meanwhile, world grain production increased fivefold, from 400 million to 1.9 billion tons.

So far, so good. But that’s just the first few pages of Bourne’s well-researched and wonderfully written book. The author, a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine who has long written about agriculture and land use, has traveled the world and interviewed farmers, agronomists, economists and just about anyone else you can think of involved with food production. Bourne’s conclusion—and he’s not alone—is that the Malthus curse is finally catching up to us. Bin-busting harvests are losing the race as population growth rabbits ahead.

“In other words, the world is running out of food,” he writes in a punch-to-the-gut sentence early in the book.

That became painfully clear around 2008 when food riots erupted in Egypt over people’s inability to get access to that most basic of foods—bread. As Bourne points out, grain prices were soaring at a time when harvests of such crops as wheat were at an all-time high. Supply was simply not keeping up with demand.

Part I of The End of Plenty lays out how factors such as climate change, environmental degradation, making food into fuel, a growing middle class that wants to eat higher on the food chain and just plain old population growth are conspiring to create a very hungry future. The world population is expected to grow from its current 7 billion to 9 billion by the middle of this century, and much of that growth will occur in parts of the planet where people are already starving.

Bourne reports that in 1992, 824 million of the world’s population was considered malnourished. In 1996, the United Nations held a World Food Summit where developed countries committed to halving hunger by 2015. By the beginning of this year, the number of hungry had fallen by less than 20 million. All those malnourished people equal the combined populations of the United States and European Union. Add 2 billion to the population in the next 35 years, and a truly apocalyptic scenario takes shape.

“We’ll have to learn to produce as much food in the next four decades as we have since the beginning of civilization,” says Gebisa Ejeta, a plant breeder who won the 2009 World Food Prize.

Now this is the part of the story where supporters of an industrialized, input-intensive agriculture would use these facts to defend the “U.S. must feed the world at any cost” philosophy. Such an argument has been used to justify a host of sins against the land and rural communities—from factory livestock operations to the plowing of every last acre of grass to plant more corn.

But Bourne takes an interesting turn here. He realizes the only viable way for the world to get fed is for it to feed itself—one country, one region, one village, at a time. Shipping food from the Midwest to Africa extracts way too much energy, soil and even wealth to be sustainable in the long run.

So Part II of the book presents a bit of a travelogue. The journalist spends some time in the U.S., but mostly provides firsthand reportage from places like Malawi, Panama, China, Ukraine and India. In these places the author finds farmers, researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs who are figuring out ways to stay ahead of the Malthus curse on a local level. He describes aquaculture farms that are about as efficient at closing the nutrient cycle as possible, low-tech micro-irrigation systems made from the same material that goes into cheap plastic bags and organic operations that rely on intense building of soil health. It’s exciting what can be accomplished when new technology, traditional farming, and natural processes are combined.

One of my favorite sections describes SRI: “system of rice intensification.” It was developed in the 1980s by a missionary after he spent years observing traditional farmers in Madagascar utilizing methods that relied more on natural processes than the chemical- and energy-intensive inputs that characterize the Green Revolution. SRI has proven that it can produce more rice with fewer inputs, putting money in farmer’s pockets while reducing environmental woes. SRI methods have been used to successfully produce sugarcane, yams, tomatoes, garlic and eggplant.

“This is post-modern agriculture,” one international agriculture expert tells Bourne.

But all of these individual success stories are just that—isolated examples of local farmers and researchers overcoming the odds to develop sustainable production systems. After all, we live in a global society. If corporations continue to tighten their control of our food and farm system, we are doomed to a system where some people eat too much, and a lot of people eat too little.

Toward the end of the book, Bourne tries to bring the big picture into focus by laying out some global-scale solutions. For example, if we reversed course on food-based biofuels, 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop and 16 percent of Europe’s arable land could be returned to food production. Another solution? Educate women in developing countries. This would have the duel benefit of getting innovative farming methods into the hands of the gender that produces almost half of the food in the world (and most of the food in Africa) while reducing our population explosion.

Bourne also describes Jonathan Foley’s “silver buckshot” approach to balancing food production and environmental sustainability. Foley, former head of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, points out, for example, that a third of global agricultural production is lost to waste. He advocates considering how many more people could be fed if agriculture was to focus less on how many bushels were raised per acre, and more on how many people could be fed off that same acre. Theoretically, a Midwestern farm could triple the number of calories per acre that go directly to people.

Unfortunately, Bourne also misses some key points when summarizing solutions. For example, although early on the book provides one of the most even-handed analyses I’ve ever read of the role GMOs play in agriculture, the author later overlooks a critical factor when it comes to the role genetic engineering, or any technology for that matter, will play in our future: who will control it?

“Despite the controversy over the current generation of GMOs, some have demonstrated large environmental benefits, with little documented harm. In the hands of public researchers…the potential to use our technology to create a truly sustainable agriculture now seems within our grasp,” he writes.

The problem is that GMO technology, with few exceptions, is in the hands of private entities such as Monsanto. And they do not have the public’s interest in mind when they develop and market such products.

Bourne also describes how private investors are scrambling to lease as much land as possible in Africa so that they can raise commodities for world markets. It’s “agroimperialism” at its worse. Writes Bourne: “Yet veterans of agricultural development say the massive infusion of private cash, infrastructure, and technology that such deals may bring to poor rural areas could be a catalyst for desperately needed change—if big projects and small farmers can work together.”

That last sentence contains one big, fat, problematic “if.”

But in the end, The End of Plenty serves an important role by showing how innovative humans can be when faced with their very survival. It’s not just about the technology or even the political will. It’s also about seeing beyond the next 24 hours.

As Bourne points out, even Thomas Robert Malthus was an optimist in this department: “Unlike other species, as Malthus recognized…humans have foresight.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.