More Food for More People

One of the problems of a growing global population that needs to be solved is how do we feed all those extra mouths?  We’ve looked at UN reports on this issue. We’ve also looked at counterviews that actually there is enough food for us all at the moment and the lack of food for many in the world are caused more by waste, inadequate storage and transport infrastructure and wars.  One factor that is constantly ignored by those predicting overpopulation doom is that a growing global population doesn’t just add to the number of mouths to feed. It also adds to the world’s human capital – it adds to the number of minds that can dedicate themselves to solving problems that the world is faced with – problems like a shortage of food, or transport and storage difficulties, or an excess of food wastage.

The number of people who are better fed nowadays is much greater than 200 years ago (or even 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago!), despite the fact that the global population has expanded enormously over that time. But how did this happen? Weren’t those extra billions of people just extra mouths to feed? They were more mouths, but they weren’t just extra mouths. Just like the population, the amount of food produced has also increased dramatically (and the storage and transport of food has become much more efficient).  And people (with mouths to feed) brought those changes about.  So why could something similar not happen in the next 50 years as the population grows?

Well, it could. For example, as reported in the Guardian, researchers in Australia have managed to test a new strain of durum wheat that has increased yield of 25% in saline soils.  Durum wheat is the basis for pasta, noodles, couscous as well as a lot of bread.  According to the Guardian, the reason that this is such an important finding is that:

“…[j]ust 11% of the planet’s land surface is suitable for agriculture, and a lot of this land is being steadily degraded by salination. Salts tend to accumulate wherever soils are irrigated, and ever higher tides will mean that huge tracts of now fertile estuary farmland – for instance in the Nile delta, and in Bangladesh – are increasingly at risk from catastrophic flooding or slow poisoning with brine.”

Interestingly also, the researchers used traditional techniques to breed a salt-tolerant gene in a wild wheat ancestor to the durum wheat.  They were able to do so:

“…thanks to increasingly precise knowledge of the molecular biology and biochemistry of plants. Researchers have sequenced the genomes of around 30 plants, among them wheat, soybean, rice, maize, millet and potato.”

In short, this is another technological change that can increase crop yields and help feed an expanding population.  Often, those arguing that there will be too many people to feed in the future assume that while the population increases, food supply remains static. The evidence from history, and from current scientific breakthroughs, undermines this assumption.

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  • ctw

    Just today there was an article gnawing at that same old bone from the 1970s population bomb crowd, predicting an economic collapse due to excessive human population:

    http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/next-great-depression-mit-researchers-predict-global-economic-190352944.html

    In reality, economic collapse is more likely to be due to human depopulation (see the documentary Demographic Winter.

  • Editor

    Thanks for your comment, CTW, and thanks for the link. I notice the study was relying entirely on a 1972 study, and Yahoo News had to publish a correction emphasizing that! And yet, sadly, a quick scan through the comments gives an indication of the vast number of people out there who are absolutely convinced that there is an imminent global food shortage.

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