Monday, January 29, 2007

A problem greater than climate change?

In order for a global challenge to be overcome, global acceptance of the reality of the challenge is essential. Initially, whether a problem is real or merely an artifact must be ascertained. If it can be shown that not solving the identified problem is more costly than solving it, global action becomes essential. Fairly self evident, really.

As the potentially devastating consequences of climate change become apparent, I’m more optimistic then in the past that we will produce effective solutions. Why? Because the reality of climate change is now understood not just by scientists alone, but by politicians, business leaders and the general population. When humanity focuses on a problem, when its reality is accepted, we’ve a pretty good chance of a relatively successful solution. Obviously when a problem isn’t identified, or it’s ignored, or vested interests obfuscate and delay action, effective solutions are hard to come by. So it’s important to note that there’s another problem facing humanity that is as serious as climate change, though it doesn’t get the quite the same press as it once did.

The problem is: how are we to feed the world’s population in the future. An article by Julian Cribb in the Higher Education section of the Australian lays bare the facts, which I’ll summarise here.

• There are approximately 6.6 billion people alive today. By 2050 that number will probably be ~9.3 billion.
• Economic growth, particularly in China and India, will mean those ~9.3 billion will eat enough food for ~13 billion at today’s nutritional levels (primarily through increased protein intake).
• Accordingly, we will have to produce ~110% more food than we do today.

So is this really a problem? We’ve faced this challenge in the past, and largely defeated it, through the scientific and land management advances that became known as the Green Revolution. Predictions of disaster fortunately did not become reality. But as things stand, the second Green Revolution will be far more difficult to achieve than the first.


• There’s going to be less arable land available in the future due expansion of cities and towns and land degradation caused by unsustainable farming practices. At current rates, 5 to 10 million hectares of land is no longer able to be farmed per year.
• Increasingly, arable land previously used for food production will used for bio-fuel production to replace the world’s dwindling oil supplies.
• There’s going to be less water available for farming as more water is diverted to town and city supplies. Half the world’s fresh water will be used by cities by 2050. A third less fresh water will be available to agriculture.
• Large areas of coastal seas and lakes are unsuitable for aquaculture due to sediment, nutrient and pesticide contamination. Global fish stocks are collapsing.
• Drought in major food production regions is likely to be more frequent due to climate change. Extremes of weather, resulting in crop and livestock losses, will become more common.
• More nutrients are being lost due to erosion than are being produced. The USDA points to a net 55 million tonne nutrient loss per year.

So, to put it simply, we have to produce ~110 % more food by 2050 with less land, less water, less nutrients and more droughts and variable weather. We have to do it in a sustainable manor, and without a loss of biodiversity (the importance of which I’ve discussed here).

Governments must be taking this monumental problem pretty seriously, right?

Well, no, not really. There has been a world-wide reduction in agricultural research and development over the past 20 years. There are fewer research centres with fewer researchers and less money. Our best and brightest aren’t overly interested in the low pay, employment uncertainties and lack of project funding that comes with this kind of research.

So things look a little grim, but there is some hope. Scientific and management advances are being made. Agricultural biotechnology is being revolutionised by genetic modification and molecular breeding. We’ll almost certainly be able to produce more food with less land in the future. Is it too little, too late though? We’ll see.