Food Security: Going…Going…

Sunday, 15 February 2015: 8:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room LL20A (San Jose Convention Center)
Paul R. Ehrlich,Stanford University, Stanford, CA
In a sense, civilization has always lacked food security; how well-fed people would be at a given time has been uncertain. Famines have been common throughout history. Today some 2-3 billion people are food-insecure, with insecurity defined as “open to danger or threat; lack of protection.” Roughly 800 million are frankly hungry, and another perhaps 2 billion are micronutrient malnourished.

Huge uncertainties persist about the ability of humanity to feed a projected additional 2.5 billion people adequately 35 years from now. Some are the possible biophysical constraints on how much food can be harvested. For instance, how much will climate disruption depress yields? Can fertilizers compensate for the ongoing huge losses of soils to erosion? Will groundwater supplies prove adequate for projected needs? Will the loss of winter pest-control services as the climate warms prove serious? Will overfishing, acidification, warming, and spreading of dead zones further reduce fisheries catches? How will aquaculture’s competition for feed grains affect the flows of food to humanity? Then there are the social, economic, and political uncertainties: who will care and what will be done about inequities of access to food within and between nations?

 Interactions between the biophysical and social problems are daunting. Meeting human nutritional needs means increasing agricultural production some 70-100% by 2050 in response to population growth (unless dramatic steps are taken to limit it), rising demand in emerging economies for meat-rich diets, and increasing competition for biofuels. Such a production increase will create pressure to expand the already-dangerous fossil fuel subsidy to agriculture. The results will be more greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, and likely higher food prices. Increased emissions will alter precipitation and temperature patterns, further threatening farm productivity. Steps forward in agricultural productivity could thus be offset by steps backward; a net reduction in food production is possible. Increasing yields and total food production will be made more difficult by the environmental effects of moving to more intensive and extensive agriculture, including accelerated losses of biodiversity, soil erosion, and depletion of vital aquifers, as well as further toxification of those aquifers, surface freshwater, soils, oceans, atmosphere, and organisms.  Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is whether key politicians will openly recognize the population-food crisis and provide leadership in moving it to the tops of political agendas.