Our apparently robust civilization is facing a prospect of global breakdown as major support systems begin to crumble. Locked into a centuries-long course of growth and expansion, humanity has taken over the planet’s land surface and assaulted the oceans, denying more and more living space and resources to other life-forms. Natural resources needed to support the industrial lifestyle are showing unmistakable signs of diminishing returns to investment. Central to this growing dilemma is the agricultural system that supplies food for humanity but is increasingly stressed by climate change, resource constraints, and rising demand. And most do not understand the deep underlying connections between food and the many other aspects of the world in which we live that are also dangerously constrained.
Humanity today complacently assumes that the world agricultural system can continue to feed the huge and growing human population indefinitely without revolutionary changes in strategy and behavior. The world community is taking a gigantic risk that even today’s inadequate level of nourishment can be maintained for as many as 9.7 billion people, a third more than exist today projected in 2050, a mere 36 years from now.
Among many unexamined assumptions, this agriculture risk includes:
- climate disruption will not prevent continuing increases in the yields of major grains and soybeans nor cause more and more widespread crop failures through extreme weather;
- climate disruption, leading to migrations and depletion of fish species, combined with ocean acidification, will not reduce fisheries productivity;
- water will continue to be readily available for farming, especially critical access to water for irrigation;
- the food system, heavily dependent on oil and itself producer of roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, can make a substantial start on kicking both habits;
- the constant need for more food will not prevent nations from undertaking a serious commitment towards global atmospheric de-carbonization;
- keeping nitrogen levels in agricultural systems adequate and solving the geopolitical problems surrounding the world’s available supplies of phosphorous for fertilizer even while reducing the deleterious effects of over-fertilization runoff on ocean and freshwater productivity;
- expanding reliance on such macronutrient fertilizers can replace sound soil husbandry over the long term;
- especially for the variety and nutritional quality of food, natural pollination services will be maintained despite the biodiversity crisis;
- the growing demand for meat in emerging economies, and for biofuels, will not reduce the access of the poor to grains; and
- perhaps most important, that people will have the income to purchase what food is available.
At the moment, this looks like a very bad series of bets, especially since close to a billion people are already hungry and more than that are malnourished. Perhaps the biggest unquestioned assumption is that the trajectory of the global population will follow the medium projection of the United Nations’ demographers and that little or nothing can or should be done to change it. This includes assumptions that death rates will continue to fall as they have done for more than a century and that birthrates in developing nations will gently decline as in recent decades, while those in developed nations may rise significantly. The continued expansion of the population is on a collision course with the tightening constraints of the agricultural system, as well as of other essential resources.
Can the odds of these risks not being met and of thus avoiding a collapse be changed? What would be required to do so? What changes in policies and behavior might avert a catastrophic food crisis?
It should be obvious that reducing population growth and ending it as soon as possible is a critical need. Family planning/reproductive health services are available in nearly every country. Birth control has long been accepted and used in virtually all developed nations, where low birthrates prevail today and population growth rates in most are near zero. Many developing countries have followed suit, especially in Asia and Latin America, and have substantially lowered their population growth rates.
The situation is more complex and difficult, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where the population is still growing at an average 2.7 percent annually. The development of many societies with high birthrates is constrained by poverty, hunger, high infant and child mortality (which promotes over-reproduction), illiteracy, lack of basic health care, and, often, failing governments. Their dilemma certainly includes a great need for serious efforts to restrain reproduction, but family planning programs in some of these countries are at best token efforts.
Improvements in agricultural production are essential for development (although too many development “experts” have focused mainly on urbanization and industrialization). In sub-Saharan Africa in particular, increasing agricultural efficiency, adopting more ecological farming practices, and reducing food waste could dramatically improve well-being and support the development process in general.
While the problems of agriculture are most acute in the poorest nations where rapidly rising demand for food puts extra pressure on weak systems, the global food system at large is facing stresses from water shortages, widespread soil deterioration, and climate-caused weather disasters, as well as potential shortages of fertilizers and energy. Even so, the odds of avoiding a collapse of the global food system could be considerably improved by a coordinated worldwide effort to:
- stop expanding land under agriculture (to preserve natural ecosystem services);
- increase yields where possible (especially of tropical crops);
- revise industrial agricultural practices to make them more ecologically sound;
- place much more emphasis on soil conservation;
- increase the efficiency of fertilizer, water, and energy use; and
- greatly enlarge investment in, and dramatically change the direction of, agricultural research and development.
It is also very important to stop overfishing and attempt to restore natural fisheries, which may be difficult while greenhouse gas emissions are changing the temperature and chemistry of the oceans.
Finally, people in the richer countries should reduce their consumption of animal products and diversion of crops to biofuels, and all societies should reduce food wastage. It would be helpful to educate everyone about how the human food system works, and move appropriate nutrition for all to the top of the global policy agenda. All this is admittedly a large order.
All is not hopeless, however. Demographic shrinkage is occurring or approaching in most over-consuming rich nations, where it is most important. Giving women equal rights everywhere would help promote fertility reductions and improve humanity’s odds of avoiding catastrophe. It would be a lot easier to nourish 8.2 billion people adequately in 2050 than 9.7 billion.
In analyzing the prospects for supplying the rapidly growing human population with adequate diets over the next several decades and beyond, leaders of developed nations should explain that their citizens should have a maximum of two children per couple and work to curb their consumption. The impossible goal of perpetual economic growth through increasing consumption must be abandoned. The bottom line is the human predicament is unlikely to be resolved unless the scale of the human enterprise – global population size and per capita consumption among the rich – can be reduced as rapidly as humanely possible.
Another growing mechanism to combat the global food crisis, one which could work very nicely in Belize as a national or regional strategy, is the idea of food sovereignty. Communities all over the world are embracing food sovereignty as a means to fixing our broken global food system. As a movement, small farmers, fishers, consumers, environmentalists, and indigenous groups work together to preserve agricultural heritage and alleviate the stresses imposed on them by the global food market.
The Principles of Food Sovereignty call for:
- Food for People
- Valuing Food Providers
- Localizing Food Systems
- Making Decisions Locally
- Building Knowledge and Skills
- Excerpts from Working with Nature
As a global partner to the growing food sovereignty movement, Grassroots International confirms that “when these simple-yet-revolutionary principles are incorporated into national and international trade and agricultural policies — and when they become a visible reality in our own communities — we will know that the fight for food sovereignty has been won.” This is as much a fight for social and economic justice as it is a fight to protect the environment, along with the ability of communities, states, and nations to determine their own food and agriculture policies. Food sovereignty requires discussion. It takes putting people around the table, with meetings to figure out how water and food are shared, and how hunger is eradicated.
Excerpts from Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich, from the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB).