Mar
03
2011

Feeding the world one (billion) at a time

Just a few of your billions of hungry friends
Just a few of your billions of hungry friendsCourtesy SchuminWeb
Buckle up, because this is a long post. But it’s about your second favorite thing: food. If you’re the impatient type, skip to the end for the bullet points.

(The number one thing is Hollywood gossip, duh. Go on and act like it’s not.)

So … imagine you and six of your friends standing in a room together. I know some of you don’t have six friends (Facebook doesn’t count), but for the sake of science pretend that you do. And I don’t know why you all are just standing around in a room. Trying to prove a point, I guess.

Imagine you and six of your friends are standing in a room together. Now, imagine one hundred times that number of people. Now imagine one hundred times that number. And one hundred times that number. And a thousand times that number.

That’s seven billion people, all just sort of standing around a room, and that’s about the number of people we have on the planet today.

And the thing is, all seven billion of y’all eat like Garfield. (Garfield, for all of you foreign Buzzketeers, was the 20th president of the United States, and he loved lasagna.) Seven billion people, eating, eating, eating. That’s you.

Obviously y’all have to eat, so we put a lot of effort into producing food. Right now, humans have used up about 40% of the planet’s land surface, and the vast majority of that is dedicated to agriculture (i.e., food production). In fact, if you were to take all the crop-growing land in the world and lump it together, it would be the size of South America. And if you were to take all of the pastureland (land for raising animals) in the world and lump it together, it would be the size Africa!
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.Courtesy IonE

That is obviously a lot of land. The transformation of that land from its natural state into agricultural land may be responsible for about a third of all the carbon dioxide mankind has released into the atmosphere. And each year agriculture is responsible for more than 20% of all the new greenhouse gas emissions. And the whole process takes 3,500 cubic kilometers of water, and hundreds of millions of tons of non-renewable fertilizers, and lots of people don’t have enough food …

But we’re pretty much doing it. It’s not pretty, but we’re feeding the planet.

Here’s the punch: there’s a lot more people coming soon, and not much more food. By 2050, there will very probably be about 9 billion people on the planet. How are we going to feed 2 billion more people than are alive today? While there is a lot unused land out there, very little of it is arable. That means that we’ve already used up almost all of the land that’s good for growing food.

Oh, shoot.

What we need to do is produce more food with just the land we’re already using. Fortunately, scientists are working on ways to do this.

I’m going to get the first one out of the way right now, because you aren’t going to like it …

Eat less meat. Eat a lot less meat.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.Courtesy IonE

Don’t get me wrong—I agree with you that meat is delicious and manly (or womanly), but we eat a lot of meat, and raising meat animals is a really inefficient way to get food. To get lots of meat, and to get the animals to grow quickly, we feed them grains that we farm. But to get just one pound of beef (not one pound of cow; one pound of beef) we have to feed a cow about 30 pounds of grain. Say what you will about meat being calorically more dense, it doesn’t have 30 times the nutritional value of grain.
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?Courtesy IonE

If you look at the maps that compare the volume of crops we grow to the volume of crops we actually eat, you find that places like North America and Europe actually use most of their crops for something besides directly eating—mostly because we’re feeding them to animals (and using them for biofuel feedstock).

Leaving alone the amount of water animals need, and the pollution they can cause, eating meat doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So there you go. I told you that you wouldn’t like it. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one causing the problem—the rest of the world, as it gets wealthier, wants to eat as much meat as you, and so unsustainable meat production is on the rise for just about anyone who can afford it.

Ok, here’s the next idea:

Cut it all down, and turn the planet into one big ol’ farm.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.Courtesy Jami Dwyer

We aren’t going to be growing crops in the arctic any time soon, but there are areas we could take advantage of still. Like the tropical forests. We could bulldoze those suckers down, and use the land for crops.

This, of course, is a horrible solution, and I snuck it in here just to bother you. Even if you don’t prioritize the biodiversity of the world’s tropical forests, or the ways of life of the people who live in them, tropical forests play a huge role in keeping the planet a livable place. So we should table that one for a while, unless you really, really want to bulldoze the rainforests.

And then there’s this idea:

Grow more food on the land we’re already using.

Of course! Why didn’t we think of this before?!

Well, we did think of this before, about 60 years ago. Back in the middle of the 20th century, populations in developing countries were exploding, much faster than food production was increasing. Trouble was on the horizon.

And then … Norman Borlaug came along. Of course, lots and lots of people helped deal with the food crisis, but Borlaug was at the center of what became known as the Green Revolution. He worked to build up irrigation infrastructure (to water crops), distribute synthetic fertilizers (mostly nitrogen chemically extracted from the atmosphere), and develop high-yield crop varieties that would produce much more food than traditional crops, when given enough fertilizer and water.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.Courtesy University of Minnesota

Now, some folks point out that the Green Revolution had plenty of environmental and social drawbacks, but the fact remains that it also kept millions upon millions of people from starving. And Borlaug himself said that while it was “a change in the right direction, it has not transformed the world into a Utopia.”

The change in the right direction part is what scientists are working on now.

Researchers at organizations like the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) are figuring out implement the sorts of things Borlaug worked on more fully, and more efficiently.

By combining satellite data with what can be observed on the ground, IonE is determining exactly where crops are growing, how much each place is growing.
This is how much corn we grow right now
This is how much corn we grow right nowCourtesy IonE
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.Courtesy IonE
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.Courtesy IonE

They can then compare this information with estimates of how much each place could grow, given the right conditions. The difference is called a “yield gap.” What it will take to close the yield gap, and get area place growing as much as possible, differs from place to place. But IonE is trying to figure that out too—some places need more water, and some need more nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium fertilizers.

Knowing how much of a particular resource a place needs, and what the food payoff will be when it receives those resources is a big step in working up to feeding nine billion people. It’s not the last step, not by a long shot, but it provides an excellent map of where future efforts would be best invested.

Aaaaannnnd … the bullet point version for you osos perezosos out there:

  • In a few decades, there will be about 9 billion people on the planet.
  • There’s not enough food for 9 billion people.
  • There’s not really enough land available to grow enough food for 9 billion people.
  • We can get more food out of the land we’re already using.
  • Scientists are trying to figure out which areas have the potential to grow more food, and what it will take to get them to do it.
  • Doing this will be difficult, but probably not impossible.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Something I ought to point out—the "hanger-on" in the photo of Norman Borlaug is actually George Harrar, a plant pathologist who led Borlaug's team doing wheat research in Mexico.

Why didn't I write that yesterday? My hands had cramped into useless claws after writing this long post. Or perhaps because I was too lazy to include the information. But today is a new day!

Thanks to Megan Forgrave at The World Food Prize organization (which Borlaug founded!) for pointing this out.

posted on Fri, 03/04/2011 - 11:47am
kali's picture
kali says:

I think it is wonderful to know that people care. Everyone should feel fortunate for all the things they have and all the one that care for you! God bless everyone!!

posted on Fri, 03/04/2011 - 1:42pm
Carrie's picture
Carrie says:

Another idea that will help, albeit on a smaller scale--more people need to grow food close to home. We can convert more park land to community gardens, convert more lawns to gardens, put more container gardens on patios. Those sprawling suburban lawns are a resource waiting to be used!

posted on Fri, 03/04/2011 - 1:42pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I think you're right.

The more I learn about the subject, though, the more complicated it seems. Trucking a small amount of produce 50 miles to a local farmers' market each week, for instance, isn't necessarily more efficient than shipping huge quantities of vegetables across a continent. And depending on where you live, the resources necessary for you to grow some kinds of plants (fresh water, heat, fertilizers) may outweigh those needed to grow them a long ways away in another environment.

It's hard to imagine, though, that many people would devote much more water and fertilizer to home gardens than they already do to their lawns, so growing a little extra food for yourself probably would be an environmental and nutritional net gain.

posted on Thu, 03/10/2011 - 7:36pm
Brett Favre's picture
Brett Favre says:

I think that this story is a decent way of describing our economical troubles in our modern day society. We want and we want so we take and we take too much and that is what some people don't understand.

posted on Fri, 03/11/2011 - 1:26pm
stephanie hanson's picture
stephanie hanson says:

We started growing a garden in our backyard to feed our family some of the fruits and vegetables, so that we can consume less from the super market. Plus, my kids think the fresh food tastes much better!

posted on Fri, 04/01/2011 - 1:18pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

How about we move to a flexitarian diet, eat less, manage our land better, use our resources more efficiently, and stop being wasteful. There isn't a silver bullet answer. We have to try

posted on Sun, 05/29/2011 - 10:20am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

how's about breeding less?

posted on Thu, 06/30/2011 - 5:28pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I'm glad so many people have ideas about how to solve this problem. We have discussed this in science class at school.
I think that we should try to use the farm land we have more efficently, and find ways to stretch our meals.Also, we should ship produce all over the world - cheaply!

posted on Thu, 07/21/2011 - 2:43pm
Kyla Monay Kemp 's picture
Kyla Monay Kemp says:

I think that we need safe the the environment but we should also be able to participate in things that are not so good for the enviroment. I always here peole talk about saving the earth but they don't do the things that they say they do.

posted on Tue, 08/16/2011 - 1:51pm
Megan Petersen's picture
Megan Petersen says:

I don't think we will be able to grow enough crops,so I voted mass starvation.

posted on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 4:47pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Rather than working on maximizing food production alone we should also look towards control of over population. Not by putting limits on the number of children a family can have,. but by education on the folly of too many children being born in areas that will not sustain such population growth

posted on Wed, 12/28/2011 - 1:45pm
CORNUCOPIA's picture
CORNUCOPIA says:

Governments are largely responsible for food shortages in the modern world. They either block food shipments for political or economic reasons, leading to malnutrition and/or mass starvation, or they dump food onto the world market and so undermine local economies, or through crony capitalism allow big agribusiness to run small farmers out of business (as happened in Mexico after NAFTA went into effect).

The free enterprise system provides the mechanism to supply both the quantity and quality of food required. Government interference and anti-competitive protectionism are major threats which need to be eliminated.

I might also point out that world population is expected to peak at around 9 billion sometime around the middle of this century and then begin declining, so excess demand is probably not going to be as big a problem as some people think.

posted on Fri, 01/06/2012 - 9:07pm

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