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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Feeding a flawed and growing society

Ensuring sufficient food supplies for a surging human population, which is set to grow by 2.4 billion by mid-century, will require serious work

Virtually everyone in the scientific community agrees that ensuring sufficient food supplies for a surging human population, which is set to grow by 2.4 billion by mid-century, will require serious work. Indeed, we have not even succeeded at providing enough food for today’s population of 7.3 billion: Nearly 800 million people currently are starving or hungry, and another couple billion do not get enough micronutrients. But there is no such consensus about how to address the food-security problem.

The scientific community is split between two main approaches: “tinker with agricultural details" (TAD) and “mend societal fundamentals" (MSF). While the former approach has support from a clear majority, the latter is more convincing.

To be sure, the TAD camp has identified many important problems with current food production and distribution systems, and addressing them could indeed improve food security. Yields could be increased by developing better crop varieties. Water, fertilizer and pesticides should be used more efficiently. Maintaining tropical forests and other relatively natural ecosystems would preserve critical ecosystem services, especially soil fertility, pollination, pest control and climate amelioration. The trend towards rising meat consumption should be reversed. Stricter regulation of fisheries and ocean pollution would maintain the supply of marine protein essential to many people. Waste in food production and distribution should be reduced. And people should be educated to choose more sustainable and nutritious foods.

But the TAD approach is incomplete. Not only would its short-term goals be extremely difficult to achieve without more fundamental societal changes, even if they were attained, they would probably prove inadequate in the medium term, and certainly in the long term.

To see why, let us suppose that, in 2050, the TAD goals have all been reached. As a result, the world could avoid famines by mid-century. But, in a human population of 9.7 billion, hunger and malnutrition would be proportionately the same as they are in today’s population of 7.3 billion. In other words, even with such an extraordinary and unlikely combination of accomplishments and good luck, our food-security predicament would still be with us.

The reason is simple: Our societies and economies are based on the flawed assumption that perpetual growth is possible on a finite planet. To ensure global food security—not to mention other fundamental human rights—for all, we need to recognize our limitations, in terms of both social and biophysical factors, and do whatever it takes to ensure that we do not exceed them.

Based on this conviction, the MSF approach demands that governments take steps to empower women in all areas of society and ensure that all sexually active people have access to modern birth control, with women free to have an abortion, if they so choose. At the same time, governments must address inequality of wealth, and thus of food, not least by curbing corporate dominance.

Short of bringing the global population down to sustainable levels, MSF reforms are the world’s only hope. But, as it stands, implementing them seems unlikely. If this trend continues, in 2050, governance systems will be even more poorly equipped to deal with the fundamental problems of perpetual population growth or wealth inequality.

The social-biophysical system is replete with chicken-and-egg subsystems. Given that there is no obvious single vulnerable point in the system to initiate change, governments must address a range of issues simultaneously. Key starting points include purging politics of “big money"; introducing a more progressive tax system that effectively caps the income of the extremely wealthy; ensuring that policymakers have a basic level of scientific understanding; and strengthening women’s rights, including access to free contraception.

Just as social and environmental problems can be mutually reinforcing, so can actions aimed at strengthening our social and environmental fundamentals. Only by focusing on these fundamentals, rather than merely tinkering with the details of food production, can intrinsic systemic linkages work to the advantage of future generations.

©2016/PROJECT SYNDICATE

Paul R. Ehrlich and John Harte are, respectively, professors at Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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