Feeding 9 Billion and Avoiding a Collapse of Civilization: Science's Main Challenge

Sunday, 16 February 2014
Regency D (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Paul R. Ehrlich , Stanford University, Stanford, CA
The most serious threat to global sustainability is one on which there is widespread agreement: the growing difficulty of avoiding large-scale famines. Measures to improve food security have never been more urgently needed, and sadly current warnings probably underestimate the food problem. For example, in addition to nearly a billion people “hungry,” micronutrient deficiencies may afflict some 2 billion additional people today. And many other sources of vulnerability are underrated: the potential impact of climate disruption on farming and fisheries; how a shift away from fossil-fuel consumption will impair food production; how agriculture itself, a major emitter of greenhouse gases, accelerates climate change; and the consequences of groundwater overpumping and the progressive deterioration of soils. Indeed, agriculture is also a leading cause of biodiversity loss – and thus loss of vital ecosystem services supplied to farming – as well as being a principal source of global toxification.

Perhaps most important, virtually all discussions of food security assume the human population will grow by 2.5 billion people by 2050. The optimism of many analysts concerning our ability to feed these additional billions is quite disturbing, given the dreadful nutritional state of billions today. If it will be so easy to feed a population 35 percent larger, why isn’t everyone well-nourished now?

Five steps have long been recommended to solve the food problem: stop increasing land for agriculture (to preserve natural ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; increase the efficiency of fertilizer, water and energy use; become more vegetarian; and reduce food wastage. To this one could add: reduce the flow of CO2 into the atmosphere; stop wrecking the oceans; greatly enlarge investment in agricultural research; and move proper nutrition for all to the top of the global policy agenda.  All of these steps require substantial changes in human behavior, but they seem unlikely since most people fail to understand the agricultural system and its complex, nonlinear connections to the mechanisms driving environmental deterioration. Inputs needed to feed each additional person will, on average, come from scarcer, poorer and more distant sources, disproportionately more energy will be used and greenhouse gases generated.  And above all they fail to see that humanely reducing future human numbers, by empowering women everywhere and making modern contraception universally available, could make solutions much easier and the human future much brighter.