The well-known and globally active NGO Oxfam just started a new campaign called GROW. It is about the necessity we are soon to face – the necessity having to feed 9 billion people living on Earth. This is the official population forecast for 2050 according to the UN. So, Oxfam is suggesting in its campaign that it is indeed possible to achieve this – i.e., to feed 9 billion people sufficiently – if we want to. Despite all my sympathy and reverence toward Oxfam’s work, I doubt that this is possible.
As for now, almost one billion people in the world are starving. Many more are undernourished, though they have something to eat. On the other side of the coin, there are some 1,5 billion overweight people on Earth (one third of them being obese). This is a terrible discrepancy, maybe the worst we have to struggle with today. We have been trying to change this for years (remember the Millenium Development Goals) – without much success so far.
And then there is the Oxfam’s message that we (theoretically) can nourish 9 billion people – 2 billion more than are living now. Is this realizable? Without being an expert in this field, I cannot really imagine that this is achievable even under ideal conditions: 9 billion are just too many people for the one Earth we have. But even if we could reach the goal under ideal conditions: they never will be ideal. Feeding humanity is a hugely complex challenge, and even though we (hopefully) are going to remove some obstacles, we are not able to remove them all. Probably not even the majority, for that matter.
What are the obstacles leading to the current state where one sixth of the world population is starving? There are many of them. Let me list a few, just to give you an idea of what Oxfam is assuming we can overcome:
- Climate change: higher temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, more frequent extreme weather events (droughts and floods especially) – these are consequences of climate change that are impeding food production already now. If we are not going to stop the anthropogenic climate change soon (and it doesn’t look like we are), the situation will be aggravated at an ever higher rate. Not a good prospect for feeding 9 billion people.
- Intensive agriculture: the state of the art in agriculture is highly unsustainable today. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, monocultures – they all may increase the yields now. But by destroying soils, killing pollinators, and “producing” multiresistant pests they at the same time contribute to lower yields in the future. If we had plenty new land to cultivate, this wouldn’t be an issue. But we have not.
- Unequal distribution of wealth between the North and South: poor people may have potential access to food. But if they have nothing to pay it with, it is as if they hadn’t. Starving people are not able to work – so they aren’t going to have the money to buy food and to allay hunger: the vicious cycle is complete. Meanwhile, in the North we seem to have too much money, which aggravates the next problem.
- Wastage: in rich countries of this world, every day huge amounts of food are thrown away. The reasons are manifold: because people buy more food than they need. Or because they don’t buy food whose best before date is to expire soon after – although objectively it often is not worse than “fresh” food. Again: would we eat only what is produced in our own countries, this wouldn’t be that much of a problem. But there hardly is any agriculture left in the rich world – most of our food is coming from other countries. The more we throw away, the less is left for the people living there.
- Overconsumption of meat: it is scientifically proved that we don’t need as much meat in our diet as we have (we = Europeans and Northern Americans). Nevertheless, the richer people are, the more meat they tend to eat (on average; there are exemptions from the rule, notably Japan). But high meat consumption is wastage. About one third of the world’s grain harvest is eaten by animals – only for us to eat them later. For the same amount of calories in one’s food, one needs several times the same amount of calories as input when eating meat (as compared to eating plants). A little less beef wouldn’t kill anybody.
These are just a few examples. But they show that if we want food security for all people living on this planet, we have to change a lot – actually, we have to change our way of living. Yet I don’t see anything that I could interpret as signs of this needed change. Yes, we are advancing in each and every one of the issues I pointed out – but the progress is far too slow. It hasn’t brought much improvement so far, and it is very doubtful that it can keep pace with population growth. I don’t believe that it can.
As unwilling as we seem to be to do that: we have to face the fact that what we can and have to do is to stop population growth. By whichever means. And at the same time, of course, we have to work even harder on the challenges I listed above. Maybe we are able to feed the 6-7 billion of us living now. But before we achieve that, don’t think on feeding 9 billion.