Crowded world to face a hungry future
A newly published government report warns of a coming food crisis. Technology saved us once. Can it succeed again or should we find a fresh solution?
Food is easily taken for granted – supermarket shelves are piled with foodstuffs from all over the world. The days of rationing - when a single egg was a prized treasure, and a banana an unheard-of luxury - are long since over.
But according to a report published yesterday, such abundance may soon be a thing of the past. The report warns of a ‘major threat’ to global food supplies, driven by a ‘perfect storm’ of population growth, climate change and shrinking resources.
Worries about world food are nothing new. 200 years ago, a scholar called Thomas Malthus warned that populations could grow beyond the limits of what the land could support.
When this happened, he wrote, humanity would suffer devastating famine or disease until the population had returned to sustainable levels.
In the 20th Century the world’s population began to grow at an astonishing rate, leading to widespread fears of a ‘Malthusian crisis’. In countries like India, famine had already claimed millions of lives, and looked set to destroy many more.
But the 1960s saw what was later called ‘The Green Revolution’. By introducing modern agricultural technology like chemical fertilizer and specially bred crops, scientists managed to produce harvests in the developing world that were ten times their former size.
Now the gains of the Green Revolution are starting to run out. Global population keeps growing – it’s predicted that we’ll need 40% more food by 2050 – while in many places, agricultural yields have already peaked.
What’s more, modern intensive agriculture, which produces such high yields, consumes huge quantities of water and fertilizer. Now, in many places, underground water reserves have nearly run dry. Oil supplies, crucial for making fertilizer, won’t last forever either.
Now debate is raging over how to avoid a future of food riots and famines. Many scientists hope for a new wave of technological solutions.
In the short term, they say, intensive farming in Africa could increase harvests there and lift millions out of poverty. In the longer term, new sciences like genetic modification could provide crops that will give high yields without guzzling scarce resources.
But these ideas are bitterly opposed by some environmentalists, who argue that ‘industrial farming’ is the wrong answer. They point out that while one billion people in the world go hungry, another billion are over-fed. We don’t need to grow more food – just share it better.
- How is it that in Britain people can die of obesity while in poor countries people die of starvation? Why is it so difficult to feed everyone?
- Is technology always the answer or does it have limitations? What are some possible dangers of new technology?
- Find and research a famous famine from history (e.g. the Irish Potato Famine, the Bengal Famine, the Siege of St Petersburg). Write a report explaining what happened, and why.
- Make a list of things you use in ordinary life, then try to work out where they come from and which resources (e.g. oil, water, land, energy) are used to make them and bring them to you. How sustainable is your life? Try to design a poster to show your findings.
Some People Say...
“If we just introduced global rationing, there would be plenty of food to go round.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So is our population ‘unsustainable’?
- A sustainable population is one that can be supported forever using renewable resources. At the moment, we use a lot of non-renewable resources (like oil) to survive. To become sustainable, we need to change a lot about the way we live.
- And can technology really help?
- It’s controversial. The best-known technology is genetic modification (GM), a technique that alters the DNA of plants. Scientists hope that new GM plants will grow better without water or fertilizer. However, opponents claim that playing with DNA is very dangerous.
- What about social change?
- In the past, countries hit by famine have often continued to export food, even as people were starving. It’s not that there wasn’t enough food – just that people couldn’t afford it. But, to share food equally, richer people would have to eat much less.