Feeding The Future: Part One – Problems With Our Current Food Production System

  • Published on May 30th, 2014

This is a modified version of an essay originally submitted to crossroadsforsociety.org by Ken Whitehead on Jan 12 2013

Food Map

One of the major challenges we currently face is how to ensure that there are sufficient resources available to feed all seven billion people who currently call this planet home. As things currently stand we produce enough food worldwide to meet the nutritional needs of every human being on this planet, and yet the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has released figures which show that almost one billion people are chronically undernourished. At present therefore the main problem is inequality in the distribution of food resources. However there are a number of worrying future trends, which include stagnant or declining crop yields, loss of topsoil, the growth in biofuels, increased demand for meat, and the effects of climate change. Taken together these factors are likely to put considerable pressure on the food supply over the next few years, which may result in genuine food-supply shortages. Add to that the fact that human populations are expected to increase by another two to three billion by the middle of this century and there are the makings of a potential food crisis.

Currently about forty percent of the Earth’s land area is given over to agriculture. This may not sound like a lot, but the areas which remain include the world’s cities, deserts, mountain ranges, ice sheets, and tropical and temperate forests. Areas which are suitable for further agricultural expansion are therefore very limited, and are often of considerable ecological value. Conversion of tropical rainforests to agricultural land is already causing serious environmental degradation in countries such as Indonesia and Brazil. Other areas which may at first glance appear to be under-utilised include marginal lands with poor soils, and steeply-sloping terrain. The fact is that most of the suitable land for agriculture throughout the world is already being used for this purpose.

Unsustainable Practices

Shortages of agricultural land are compounded by changes in people’s eating habits. As populations become wealthier in developing countries, there is an increasing tendency towards a western style diet, which is high in meat. However beef production is one of the least efficient forms of agriculture. A 2012 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists highlights the figures. Worldwide some sixty percent of agricultural land is given over directly and indirectly to beef production, and yet beef provides an average of only five percent of the protein consumed by people worldwide. Livestock production also consumes a large percentage of the world’s fresh water, with some estimates suggesting that as much as 16,000 litres of water are required to produce a single kilogram of grain-fed beef. From these statistics it is clear that if more emphasis were instead to be put on growing staple crops, then it would theoretically be possible to feed the world’s population comfortably; even the nine to ten billion people projected for the middle of the century. This is of course assuming that factors such as climate change do not dramatically affect future crop yields.

Consumption of fish has also reached unsustainable levels. Fish is the only major source of food for which we still we still rely primarily on wild stock. However many of the major fisheries we depend on have been exhausted or are close to exhaustion. Fishermen have seen declining catches for many years, as well as declines in the average size of the fish caught. Worst of all is the bycatch. This is the term for fish which are not permitted to be caught, either because they are the wrong species or because they are undersized. The bycatch often outnumbers the fish which are allowed to be taken, and while these fish are returned to the sea there is typically a mortality rate of around eighty percent. The technique of bottom trawling has also made virtual deserts of large areas of the sea bed, which has further contributed to the decline of many fisheries. It is therefore unlikely that wild-caught fish will form a significant part of our diet in another twenty years time. And while aquaculture or fish farming is often seen as the solution to declining wild fisheries, it has a number of problems of its own; such as the fact that most common species used for farming need to be fed a diet of fish protein. Therefore in order to raise a kilogram of farmed fish, several kilograms of smaller fish have to be caught in the wild, further contributing to the depletion of the marine resource.

Vulnerabilities in the Food Supply

Of the foods which are consumed by people worldwide, there are about fifteen staple crops. These include wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, yams pulses, and plantains. Two thirds of human food consumption is derived from the three staples of wheat, maize, and rice, with about twenty percent of the world’s total calorific intake coming from wheat and a similar amount from rice. This reliance on a limited number of food staples makes us extremely vulnerable to any crop-specific pathogens. For example there has recently been a resurgence of wheat stem rust in much of Africa and Asia. This is a fungal disease which typically reduces crop yields by around a quarter, but in seriously infected areas it can devastate an entire crop. Since the difference between the amount of available food and the amount of food consumed worldwide is currently very small, a major outbreak of this pathogen in one of the world’s  breadbasket regions could result in millions of people facing starvation.

More than two centuries ago, Thomas Malthus wrote “An Essay on the Principles of Population”. This work was considered revolutionary because it went against the prevailing wisdom of the times, which considered human population growth to be a good thing. Malthus saw that while human populations increased exponentially over time, the food resource increased in a linear manner as new agricultural land was brought into service. At some stage therefore he saw it as inevitable that the human population would run out of food, resulting in mass starvation.

That this has not happened is not because Malthus was wrong, as critics often claim; but rather because of a factor which Malthus could not have foreseen. The green revolution occurred in the second half of the twentieth century and saw crop yields increase dramatically, due to the introduction of industrial farming methods around the world. Prior to this crop yields had changed little for hundreds of years. The green revolution saw mechanisation of the entire farming process, with field sizes being increased considerably to allow farm machinery to be used more efficiently. However the biggest change was in the use of artificial nitrate fertilisers. The use of synthetic fertilisers allowed for a doubling of crop yields over a period of a few years. Industrial agriculture also required the use of large amounts of chemical pesticides to protect the genetically-weaker high-yielding crops from natural predators and disease.

Fossil Fuel Dependency

A major problem with the industrial farming model is that it is totally dependent on the world’s dwindling supply of fossil fuels. Modern farming requires fuel for farm machinery and synthetic nitrates for fertiliser, both of which require large amounts of hydrocarbons to produce. Also crop yields have stopped increasing in recent years, and have actually shown a slight decline worldwide. This suggests that Malthus was not wrong; he was simply too early. Malthusian logic predicts that, as we approach the intersection point between increasing human populations and declining fossil-fuel reserves, demand for food will outstrip available supplies. The resulting food crisis could potentially be far more severe than that originally envisaged by Malthus, since the green revolution has allowed human populations to increase far beyond the numbers which the Earth is capable of supporting in the long term.

It can be seen that we are potentially heading for trouble as far as food availability is concerned. The mechanisms of the market system are already starting to cause increases in the costs of staples, such as rice and grains. Rich countries will be able to afford these increased prices, for a while at least. However poor third-world countries are likely to see major food shortages in the future, and many regions of the Earth will see rates of chronic malnutrition increase dramatically. Worse still are the potential effects of climate change. Although these cannot be predicted for specific regions with certainty, it is likely that large parts of the Earth will be negatively affected. Climate change is likely to bring increased temperatures, as well as changes to traditional rainfall patterns, and will almost certainly bring about a reduction in crop yields worldwide. Once again it is likely that the most severe impact will occur in poor third-world countries which are heavily dependent on seasonal rains.

This is the current picture, and it is not pretty. If we do not make major reforms to our agricultural production system we will be unable to keep up with demand. It is possible that new reserves of fossil fuels will be discovered, potentially allowing us to prolong the life of the industrial agriculture system for a few more years. However fossil fuels need to be phased out as soon as possible because of their effects on the Earth’s climate, so ultimately this form of agriculture is doomed.

Alternative Futures

This is one potential food future for the human race, but it is not the only one. Like the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” we have been given a glimpse of the future as it will be if we stay on our present course. However there are a number of reasons for optimism. New technologies and farming techniques, as well as traditional techniques learned from earlier generations of farmers offer potential solutions to many of the problems associated with industrial farming. In the second part of this essay I want to talk about alternatives to our current system of industrial agriculture, and how these are inextricably linked to the future availability of energy.

Go to Part Two


photo credit: ishmael78 via photopin cc

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About the Author

Ken Whitehead is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, where he specialises in using unmanned aerial vehicles for a variety of environmental monitoring applications. For his PhD he developed methods for measuring glacial flow rates and ice loss in the Canadian Arctic. In the past he has been a remote sensing instructor, and has worked as a remote sensing / geomatics specialist in the UK, South Africa, and Canada. Ken is originally from Scotland, but currently lives in interior British Columbia, where he enjoys life in the great Canadian outdoors.