POPULATION: by Brian J. ComanNews Weekly
We already grow enough food to feed 10 billion people
, October 26, 2013
Many older readers of News Weekly will remember with great fondness the poems of Australian bush poet John O’Brien — the pen name of Fr Patrick Joseph Hartigan (1878-1952).
“Said Hanrahan”, perhaps his most famous poem, tells of the pessimistic farmer who, each summer predicts a terrible drought, each winter devastating floods, and each spring, catastrophic bushfires. “We’ll all be rooned” is Hanrahan’s constant refrain.
Hartigan was a keen observer of the human condition and, truth to tell, we all have those moments of pessimism about the future. Throughout most of Western history, what has saved us from the Slough of Despond is our belief in some higher end for the human journey, and some inkling of what we used to call Providence. Indeed, this is probably true for all traditions and cultures, for without such hope they could not have survived.
With the rise of secularism, consequent upon the general philosophical outlook of the Enlightenment, these avenues of hope and confidence in the future were either abandoned or transferred to mere human self-confidence. The predictable result of such loss of faith in a higher purpose was an increase in dire predictions concerning the future of humanity, especially concerning issues of food supply. Beginning with the Rev. Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principles of Population in 1798, there has been a long line of such doomsayers up until our own time.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, in which he famously predicted imminent catastrophe. He wrote: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
It hardly needs to be pointed out that just the opposite has happened. While the war on hunger is by no means over, the general situation today is vastly improved upon that which obtained in earlier times.
Hot on the heels of Ehrlich’s book we had the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, which became a worldwide bestseller. Again, dire predictions were made, but the authors were a little more coy concerning actual dates of looming disasters — a useful ploy for any millenarian movement.
As I write these words, more than 600 scientists are gathered in the Netherlands for a global food security conference. One of the early outcomes has been a general agreement that one of the major problems in planning for future food needs is the lack of accurate data concerning world population growth and food needs. “A really key message from the conference for us is that we have got lots of estimates about needs of population growth, etc, but at the moment we are so uncertain of the exact numbers — the uncertainty is really very high”, said the conference co-chairman Ken Giller, professor of plant production systems at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Combined with this uncertainty in predictive models (having some relevance for the climate-change debate, I would have thought) is a general confusion between genuine food scarcity and the more usual problems of distribution arising from wars, persecutions, poverty and natural disasters.
Earlier this year, Eric Holt Giménez, executive director of Food First, a non-profit organisation based in California, posted a very informative “blog” in America’s Huffington Post (May 2, 2013) in which he made this very distinction. He said: “Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day — most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land — can’t afford to buy this food.”
Dr Giménez went on to make an important point concerning priorities in food production: “In reality, the bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the one billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritise the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.”
You might bring this to mind next time you eat your grain-fed beef!
And this brings me back to a point I made at the very beginning of this piece. It turns out that the solution to a great many of the problems besetting us turn upon the notion of some higher end for the human person — an idea which imposes upon us a duty to share the earth’s resources and to respect the universal dignity of the human person. But it is more than some vague Kantian notion of duty which ought to motivate us. For the West, at any rate, it is that ancient notion of Christian charity embedded in our tradition.
Brian J. Coman, PhD, is a former research biologist who worked for the Department of Natural Resources and Environment in Victoria, Australia. He is also a widely published author and essayist. His book, A Loose Canon: Essays on History, Modernity and Tradition, is available from News Weekly books. He is currently writing a doctoral thesis at La Trobe University, Bendigo, in which he argues a defence of the Judeo-Christian tradition against the criticisms of contemporary ecological historians.