How are we going to feed the world?

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With world population forecasted to reach nine billion people during this century, the question of how all these people will have the necessary resources to survive, like water and food, has been raised many times. A large quantity of freshwater is stored in the polar icecaps and so not available for consumption (with global warming on the way these have already started to melt away into the ocean). Generally, the freshwater we use comes from aquifers that are replenished by precipitation. However, due to natural factors like prolonged drought or floods or to human-related factors such as overuse for industrial purposes or groundwater contamination, important quantities of freshwater are lost. Thus, water resources are not always available where they are needed, causing some societies to become water stressed. In many countries the sustainable water use is already threatened, despite predictions that in the future water use is expected to increase. When it comes to food production agriculture has certainly come a long way and has continuously managed to provide an increased production. Some of the reasons behind this are improved mechanization, increased use of fertilizer, herbicides, dwarf crop varieties, drought resistant crops, development of genetically modified crops, etc. Actually, in most countries agriculture is the largest single user of freshwater. In developed countries residential water use is relatively minor compared with the amounts used for agriculture. Moreover, apart from the water we consume for our daily needs, we also use water indirectly through the products we buy, which also necessitated water for their production. Thus, our water footprint is much larger than we think, due to all the externalities that we do not take into account. So it is clear that in order to meet the needs of future, more numerous generations, something needs to be changed in the way we produce food and utilise water resources. With climate change as an aggravating factor, solutions should be found as soon as possible. One of the proposed alternatives is the adoption of permaculture. A quick look on Wikipedia will show us that this is not even a new, revolutionary concept. Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, and environmental design which develops sustainable architecture / human settlements and self-maintained agricultural systems modelled from natural ecosystems. Permaculture draws from several disciplines including organic farming, agroforestry, integrated farming, sustainable development, and applied ecology to create systems that make the most of the natural ecosystems’ capacity to regulate life-supporting processes, while at the same time providing benefits for people. The core tenets of permaculture are:
  • Take Care of the Earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. Without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Take Care of the People: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Share the Surplus: Healthy natural systems use outputs from each element to nourish others. We humans can do the same. By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.
This model would also take into account the externalities that the conventional agriculture leaves out. Sure, it looks like an idyllic alternative, with organic crops and happy ecosystems, but concerns are being expressed with regard to its possibilities to replace conventional agriculture, especially given an increase in population. Some critics have suggested that permaculture would be suited for small scale projects, but it cannot be applied at large scale. However, with so many governments offering subsidies for small and medium farmers, including for preservation of traditional products/ways of producing, permaculture can turn into a viable solution, or at least a part of it. In a way, it is similar to renewable energy sources, where long-term sustainability is achieved through lower yields. And just like the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, it will probably require diversification and decades of mixed systems – both conventional and permaculture. Another suggested way of reducing the environmental burden of food production and water consumption is becoming a vegetarian or at least consuming less meat. Adopting a vegetarian diet has indeed health benefits as well as environmental ones. Of course, many claim that meat is necessary to provide us with nutrients that we cannot find in plants. However, several recent studies have shown that a balanced vegetarian or even vegan diet can successfully replace all the benefits of a meat diet. The figures about how much water and resources are used to obtain a kilo of meat are quite worrying (for example, it takes about 15000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef, 10 times more than for 1kg of wheat), not to mention the waste generated or the degradation of grazed soils. But the transition to being a vegetarian cannot happen overnight. There many factors that need to be taken into account. There are differences between developed and developing countries and even in the same country between urban and rural population. Eating meat is sometimes associated with social status, while having a (partial) vegetarian diet is related to religious practices in some regions. Especially in developed countries processed food containing meat is often the cheapest kind, so for poor people being a vegetarian is somewhat of a challenge. At the same time, among rich people, becoming a vegetarian has transformed into a new cool trend, rather than an educated choice. So a general switch towards eating less meat will need to take place gradually, for instance through try-out campaigns like Meatless Mondays. Furthermore, people will be faced with cooking for themselves instead of ordering take-out, a thing that many have forgotten how to do. However, like in most cases just switching to vegetarianism is not the miracle solution. If we compare the cost of meat production in terms of water and resources with the one of other commodities that we use, like sugar or electronics, it is not even that high. So only adopting a vegetarian diet is not going to have a great effect on our footprint. Another much debated and quite controversial solution to feed the world is genetically modified organisms or GMOs. Their advantages and disadvantages are still being weighed against each other. There are three types of GMOs currently under research: crops resistant to pests, crops resistant to various dire conditions, such as drought, and crops resistant to pesticides. The most often cited pluses of GMOs revolve around pest-free, high-yielding crops that require fewer amounts of pesticide applications and low-intensity soil tillage. It does sound like a recipe to success and these benefits are indeed very important, but many critics warn about the possible adverse consequences of their use. To start with, if we focus only on the use of these plants alone, without being biased by the greedy, unorthodox practices by which producing giant corporations are trying to sell them, there are still a few shadows of doubt hanging about. Most studies have indeed showed that the short-term consumption of GMOs has no side effects compared with that of regular plants. However, there are still not enough studies to prove this on a long term. Secondly, by far the most criticised issue is the use of pesticides-resistant GMOs. In fact, their use not only does not reduce the amount of applied pesticides, but they are designed to resist these chemicals so that a larger quantity can be used to destroy pests. In these conditions pests have started to develop resistance, so that even higher doses have to be used. This could prove bad for the health of those applying the chemicals, as well as for those eating the final produce, not to mention possible environmental consequences (the decrease in bee populations is thought to be connected to this). In addition, loosing gene pool, cross-fertilization with nearby fields risk, feeble monocultures, dependence on seed companies or a decreasing return for crops as both seeds and pesticides become more expensive, are just a few of the other downsides, as well as obstacles that GMOs will face in the future. Yes, GMO’s might prove necessary to create crops that can survive in harsh climates such as Africa or the Middle East. They can and will improve yields in many crops. But inserting a pesticide gene into a seed may turn out to have unexpected effects, which we today cannot fully understand and control without more in-depth long-term research studies. Science can take its time in coming up with solutions that are widely accepted by everyone. But there are things that we could do starting today, by ourselves. And one of the most important ones is to reduce our consumption. We are used to think that with the population increase we will need more food. This is the main reason for which GMOs came into the picture – feed the world. But unfortunately we do not consider how much food and water are wasted each day around the world. In the US alone almost half of what is produced is thrown away, while in other parts of the world millions of people die of hunger. It is not that we do not produce enough; it is just the very unequal way it is distributed. So one of the things we are able to do, in fact quite rapidly, is to start a behaviour change: consider what you really need, consume less, including meat, and use water more efficiently. Luckily we have the opportunity to do more than one thing at a time. So maybe with a little bit of renewables, more efficient use of resources, more vegetarians, less waste, etc, we will be able to make a difference.   Find out more: Some of the questions and topics referred to above (and in some of the posts that will follow on the same issue) have been raised during the course Introduction to Sustainability, available at the University of Illinois. They certainly generate a lot of discussions and this is why we decided to explore them further. The statements made in this text are not meant to offer any answers and do not pretend to cover all possible aspects of a subject. They are merely an invitation to discover various facets of the sustainability debate, of which we believe all should be aware and a part of. Image source:

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