How not to end world hunger

Food prices are rising. Again. And the scramble is on to figure out who to blame: climate change?  Biofuels? Good old capitalist greed? Just this morning the New York Times published a discussion panel on the issue: “Is the world producing enough food?”, with all the old familiar arguments and counter-arguments. This perennial debate struck a chord with me, having just completed a discussion of fishery production in my marine ecology class, and having recently reviewed a manuscript searching for solutions to the conflict between fishery production and biodiversity conservation. So here’s my answer to the question posed by the NYT:

No, and it never will.

At least not under the  current, unstated assumptions of modern global society. The reason why requires a bit deeper digging than any of the Times’ panelists was willing to go. I’m haunted in reading these essays, as in so much of the current discussion about sustainability, by what seems to me a fundamental flaw in reasoning. This is the unwillingness to acknowledge the problem at the root of the sustainability challenge, which has long been understood but is rarely explicitly mentioned, and without which all efforts at sustainability (including how to feed the world) will ultimately fail. That problem is the quasi-religion of economic growth, the resultant philosophical blind spot that prevents most of us from appreciating that the earth is finite, and perhaps most important (and certainly least comfortable) of all, the clear implication that the only long-term solution to all of these challenges is to find a humane way to limit the number of humans on earth.

This bears on the various arguments for increasing efficiency in food production–the oft-cited need for a new green revolution (and a “blue” revolution too, if we include as we must the massive juggernaut of growing aquaculture production). Is this not a worthy goal? Of course it is. We’ll never achieve a humane equilibrium on earth without greater efficiency in every sector. Yes, I agree that it’s immoral to take land out of food production to grow biofuel crops for developed-world vehicles. And yes, we need to invest more in agriculture. I’m less convinced that opening trade will solve these problems.

A typical argument one hears, as in this contribution, goes:

“Productivity growth will need to accelerate from historical trends to keep up with F.A.O.’s predictions for population and income growth.”

OK, I get it. But one can’t help but wonder: What happens to the increased food supply resulting from the increased efficiency? Will it not move up the food chain to produce more people with comparable or larger appetites? Is there any evidence in the long history of the human race and our amazing technological advances that increased efficiency has reduced pressure on land and resources for more than a transient period (i.e. for the long run, which is inherent in the definition of the word sustainable)?  I am not being sarcastic or rhetorical here, I’m genuinely curious and can’t think of an example. On the contrary my strong sense is that increased efficiency of food production has in every case flowed efficiently up the food chain to increase efficiency of people production.

And this should be no surprise. Humans are the top predators of planet earth.Technically we are omnivores — indeed the most extreme omnivores around since we can and do consume almost anything of biological origin. But we are top predators in the sense that we can (and generally do) consume any other organism, whereas nothing else eats us. The key point here is that populations of top predators are, by definition, not regulated by their own predators — they don’t have any, and so are, again by definition, regulated by something else. Given that we have largely escaped any significant regulating pressure of disease and natural disasters, the only thing left to limit human population size is food supply. In the parlance of ecological science, the global human population, like that of other top predators, exhibits “bottom-up control”, meaning that our numbers are ultimately regulated by food availability.

What are the implications of this very basic ecological observation? The principal one is that increasing efficiency of food production leads only transiently to greater per capita nutrition, because that better nutrition generally increases reproductive rate, producing more people among which the food needs to be spread, and so on. Admittedly this argument is a bit simplistic, in that transition to a rich economy eventually reduces birthrate, but that tends to occur only after a society reaches a relatively huge per capita consumption rate (the average American has an ecological footprint 20 times that of the average Bangaldeshi). Nevertheless, the general trend is quite clear: more and better food produces more people. I would be very interested to hear a convincing counterexample on  more than a small, transient scale.

So if efficiency will not (by itself) save us, what is the answer? Certainly efficiency is part of the answer. But I think another important part is what Michael Rosenzweig called “reconciliation ecology”, basically designing and managing human-dominated landscapes to be as accommodating as possible to other species. In other words, it seems likely that within this century there will be little if any reserve land (or sea) set aside that is untouched by humans. It’s just hard to imagine how it will survive the press of population and consumption pressure. Therefore, if we are going to save anything, it will have to live in more or less intimate contact with humanity. Then of course there is the elephant in the room: If any significant fraction of the nature that we love and depend on is going to be sustainable (i.e., survive into the long term), we cannot avoid the issue of how to limit the number of humans on earth. Yes, per capita consumption is an even bigger (and growing) problem and increasing efficiency will help on that count. But eventually we as a global society need to be able to have calm, substantive discussions about how to cap human population size.

That is the way to end world hunger, and have a world left to live in as well.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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3 Responses to How not to end world hunger

  1. Good job finding a quote that perfectly exhibits the inanity of our approach this problem:

    “Productivity growth will need to accelerate from historical trends to keep up with F.A.O.’s predictions for population and income growth.”

    Yikes! It’s like we’re trapped in thinking that the only way to deal with increasing demand is to increase supply. Really, reducing demand, or at least stopping the increase of demand, is the only sustainable solution. And that means stopping population growth.

  2. Andrew Dessler says:

    People ask the same question about energy efficiency: if we make things more efficient, won’t people just consume more energy because they can? This question is often traced back to Jevons and his work on coal production in the mid-19th century. Ultimately, as you point out, there needs to be discussions of what we want for economic growth, population growth, etc. At present, however, just bringing up any of these issues actually offends many people (just like bring up evolution offends some groups). There can be no discussion until people are no longer offended by the question of whether economic growth and population growth are good things. Keep up the great blogging!

  3. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for the comments guys. You’re right, Andy — this is clearly a sensitive issue as I find every time the subject comes up. But I honestly don’t see how we make progress while the elephant is stumbling around the room unacknowledged. One important point is that dealing with population does not necessarily entail becoming a nazi or trampling on people’s rights or subjugating the developing world. But that’s a subject for another post . . .

    The analogy with energy efficiency is a really good one that I’m embarrassed to say I had not thought about. One possible (?) difference there is that we’re concerned not just about the quantity of energy consumed but about the environmental degradation involved in delivering a unit of it, so if increasing efficiency is achieved by cleaner methods we contribute toward two goals at once.