Feeding All While Avoiding a Collapse of Civilization: Science's Greatest Challenge

Friday, February 15, 2013
Room 210 (Hynes Convention Center)
Paul R. Ehrlich , Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Today, at least two billion people are hungry or need better diets, and most analysts think doubling food production will be required to feed the human population adequately by 2050.  A recent excellent study outlined how a required doubling could be achieved, based on five essential steps: stop increasing land for agriculture (to preserve ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; increase efficiency in use of fertilizers, water, and energy; become more vegetarian; and reduce food wastage.  One could add: stop wrecking the oceans, enlarge investment in agricultural research, and move feeding everyone to the very top of the policy agenda.

All of these would require changes in human behavior long recommended but thus far elusive.  Most fail to realize the urgency because they don’t understand the agricultural system and its complex, non-linear connections to the drivers of environmental deterioration.  The system itself, for example, is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and thus is a driver of climate disruption, which in turn is a serious threat to food production.  More than a millennium of change in temperature and precipitation patterns is now entrained, with the prospect of increasingly severe storms, droughts, and floods (all already evident).  Thus maintaining – let alone expanding – food production will be ever more difficult.  Agriculture itself is also a leading cause of losses of biodiversity and the critical ecosystem services supplied to agriculture itself and other human enterprises, and a major source of global toxification.

A bottom-up movement is needed to direct cultural evolution toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply.  Then society could stop treating population growth as a given and consider the nutritional and health benefits of humanely ending growth well before 9 billion and starting a slow decline. The best way, in my view, to achieve such population shrinkage is to give full rights and opportunities to women. The degree to which that would reduce total fertility rates is controversial, but it would be a win-win for society.  Developing foresight intelligence and mobilizing civil society for sustainability are central goals of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (“the MAHB” – mahb.stanford.edu).  Keep your fingers crossed.