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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Can We Feed the World in the 21st Century? (Part I)

Can We Feed the World in the 21st Century? (Part I)
One of the great clouds hanging over this century is whether we will be able to feed the rising human population.  Already millions go to bed hungry every night, but what will happen when the human population grows much greater? Will there perhaps be mass starvation? Let's look at the issue from a pessimistic standpoint and an optimistic standpoint. Today's post will look at the pessimistic case.  Tomorrow's post will look at the optimistic case.

The Pessimistic Case

We don't know how much population will grow in the coming decades,
but the United Nations has three projections  shown below:

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

According to the first projection the population will grow to 16 billion. According to
the second projection, the population will grow to 10 billion. According to the third projection, the population will grow to 8 billion, and then begin to decline. Most likely, there will be a much greater need for food supplies as the population grows.

However, the production of food is critically related to the availability of fossil fuel energy supplies, particularly oil. Oil is used throughout the process of producing and transporting food, most notably in the production of fertilizers and in shipping and trucking food products. But global oil production may have peaked, or may be near to peaking.

Below is a graph from the International Energy Agency predicting future oil production:

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IEA_2010UnknownSources2.jpg

Now upon first looking at this graph, you might say: it doesn't look too bad, because the prediction is that production will slightly increase. But notice the dark blue portion of the graph above. That represents how known developed oil fields will decline in the next few decades. The other 2 blue parts of the graph basically fall under the category of “what we may get if we are incredibly lucky.” We have every reason to be skeptical that all this huge amount of oil production from “fields yet to be found” and “fields yet to be developed” will actually come about. Many say that the International Energy Agency prediction shown above is guilty of a gigantic degree of wishful thinking. They could have just as easily made a graph predicting vastly less future production from “fields yet to be found” and “fields yet to be developed.”

Here is a graph from a few years back showing future oil production from various estimates:

Source: http://www.theoildrum.com/story/2006/11/13/225447/79

As we can see from this graph, many experts predict that global oil production will soon begin to decline very substantially. Such predictions shouldn't be surprising. Oil is a non-renewable resource created from biological and geological processes that occurred millions of years ago, over the course of millions of years. We know that oil production in the United States followed a bell-shaped curve, reaching its peak around 1970. The US's current oil production is only a little more than half of what it was in 1970.  Many countries around the world have experienced the same bell-shaped curve, and have  oil production much lower than it once was.

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/US_Oil_Production_and_Imports_1920_to_2005.png

So what will happen to our food production if oil production declines sharply? With a rising population, the most likely result may be mass starvation. There would seem to be a high chance of mass starvation involving many millions of people.  Since modern food production is so dependent upon oil, it seems that to adequately feed a growing population, we need a sharp increase in oil production, but the exact opposite may be in store.

Another reason to worry about the future food supply is soil erosion.  Some 40% of the soil used for agriculture is classified as depleted.  It is estimated that soil is being used at a rate that is ten times greater than the rate at which the soil is naturally replenished. Some think that we have only about 60 years of topsoil left.  (http://world.time.com/2012/12/14/what-if-the-worlds-soil-runs-out/)

Much of the world's food comes from fishing, but fish stocks are being stressed around the world.  All too efficient methods such as bottom trawling are leading to situations where some areas now have few of the fish they have provided for food in the past.  The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that coastal fisheries have declined by 50% in the past 30 years.

Another factor to consider is global warming. As the temperature rises in the decades ahead, it may have a negative effect on global agricultural production. Temperature rises lead to more droughts. Temperature rises increase the need for irrigation. Warmer winters will mean that fewer insects will be killed off during the winter, leading to an increase in some insect populations that may threaten crops.

In fact, as population grows, more and more of the world's forests are being turned into farmland, which may itself increase global warming (since forests soak up the carbon dioxide that is causing global warming). There is also the fact that fresh water supplies are becoming more and more stressed, which may have a very negative effect on our ability to irrigate farmland.

Below is a graph based on predictions of a computer model called World3, popularized by the famous “Limits to Growth” books:

Source: http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/ecolonomics/00/ecolonomics-20090912.shtml

In this model food production hits a peak a little into the 21st century, and then starts to decline, partially because of declines in resources (which include oil and also fertile soil). After a lag of a decade or so, population starts to plummet, presumably because of mass starvation.

So is this what the future has in store? Perhaps not, because there are some optimistic factors to consider. We will examine those in the next blog post.