Managing food supply past 2050

Type the phrase “farmers feeding world” into Google’s search engine and “about 15 million results” pop up in “0.12 seconds.”

Some results may surprise American farmers who, in good old U-S-of-A modesty, may have thought they had been, were and will be feeding the world. Not so, suggests the hunter-gatherers at Google.

Every farmer matters

“Smallest Farmers Key to Feeding World’s Poorest,” claimed a headline in the Feb. 11 edition of Scientific American. “Women Farmers Feed the World,” declared the Yonkers (NY) Tribune last Nov. 28. “Organic Farmers can feed the world!” shouted a recent newspaper article from India.

Americans farmers need not worry; all—well, some anyway—have a role in filling the global food cart; “U.S. Soybean Farmers Feeding the World,” suggested the Jan. 27 issue of Iowa-Illinois Soybean Review.

More needed

Despite this muddy picture on whom and how the world will be fed, one fact seems clear: In the future, the world will be needed to feed the world.

And, of course, it will be a more populous world. According to the latest United Nations estimate, global population will reach 9.07 billion by 2050, or about one-third more than today’s 6.8 billion. (Population will top 7 billion by 2012, says the UN.)

Birth rates

Those numbers will only hold, however, if predicted lower birth rates hold. If so, world population likely will stabilize around 9 billion and then fall slightly over the following 150 years.

Lower birth rates are crucial to avoid what would be catastrophic over-population. For example, had the 2005 global birth rate not changed, “World population would rise to 244 billion in 2150 and 134 trillion by 2300,” estimates the Population Coalition.

As crushing as those numbers appear, supporting and feeding just a fraction of either—and 9 billion is only about 1/29th of 244 billion—less than two generations from now is far from certain. Often-talked about solutions like GMO seeds or “new” undefined technologies all fail to address what North Dakota farmer, sustainable ag expert and good friend Fred Kirschenmann calls “nature.”

Writing in the Winter 2009 Leopold Letter, Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, reminds us not to gloat on past accomplishments because, according to a recent United Nations report, “…(O)ur specialized monoculture food system has played a major role in destroying biodiversity and biological health of our soil, both essential to the restoration of the ecological health of our ecosystems, the foundation of any productive agriculture.”

Changes are necessary

As if on cue, two news stories—one on the front page of the Feb. 23 Wall Street Journal, the other in the Great Britain’s Feb. 23 Guardian—outline the looming farm and food disasters China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, face in the coming generation if neither changes current, fertilizer-dependent ag practices.

To that loss of soil health, Kirschenmann cautions, now add “… the end of cheap energy, declining fresh water resources, more unstable climates, the loss of both biodiversity and genetic diversity…” and three billion more people and you’ve got a world where new biotech seeds or clever uses of new fertilizer might easily add to food problems rather than solve them.

New questions

Equally worrisome, he writes, is that “Through it all we have diminished the store of human capital (farmers) that we will need to address new questions in the decades ahead. In the United States, only 400,000 farmers produce 94 percent of our agricultural commodities.”

If all this sounds like we’ve balanced the world’s food future on a pinhead, we mostly have. That won’t work two generations—let alone two centuries—from now because Mother Nature isn’t a pinhead.

Don’t want to think about it? Fine; who should? Your kids? Your grandchildren?

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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