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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, May 24, 2013

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

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

In the previous blog post we looked at some of the reasons for being pessimistic about the ability of mankind to meet all its food needs in the 21st century. Now let's look at some reasons for being optimistic that mankind will be able to meet its food needs.

The Optimistic Case

Over the past ten thousand years the number of persons fed per acre of food has grown by a factor of perhaps a thousand times. Back around 6000 BC it would take perhaps 100 acres to feed a single person, because both the planting of crops and the picking of crops was very inefficient. These days a single person can be fed by only a single acre. Modern day tractors are many times more efficient than the horse-drawn plows used long ago, and modern day reapers are many times more efficient than a single person using a scythe or cycle to cut and gather crops.

We can assume that with the growth of technology this trend will continue. Given that Google is making fantastic strides in developing self-driving cars, we can imagine there will be soon be robotized tractors and planting machines that will be able to plant crops more efficiently than we can do today. We will presumably also have robotized crop reaping and crop picking machines that will allow grown food to be reaped far more efficiently than today.

Moore's law is the law that processor power roughly doubles every two years. Because of factors such as Moore's law, you can now buy a computer a hundred times more powerful than was available a few years back, and you can also buy it at a much cheaper price. If we assume that Moore's law will continue in the next decades, it may well be that within a few decades super-efficient agricultural machines become available at a low price throughout the world.

If that happens, the food production per acre for the rest of the world (currently about 1.5 tons of grain per acre) may catch up to the current US food production per acre (currently a little less than 3 tons of grain per acre). If that happens it would probably be enough to meet the world's food needs. It is estimated that we will need a productivity of 2.5 tons of grain per acre to feed the world by 2050.

Another factor that may increase the productivity per acre is the development of new genetically engineered crops. Scientists are working on new genetically engineered crops that will require less water, produce more food, require less fertilizer, and require less pesticide. A single breakthrough in this area could produce a huge increase in global food production.

The concept of eating insects is unattractive to most US citizens, but the United Nations recently stated there is a huge potential for increasing global food production by supplementing food with insects, which can be an excellent source of protein. Such a possibility is at least something that could be used as a last resort to stop famine.

There is also a huge potential for increasing food supplies by decreasing global consumption of meat, and using more land to directly grow crops rather than using the land for raising livestock. Raising livestock such as cows and pigs is a very inefficient way to produce food. The amount of land and energy needed to produce a single kilogram of beef would produce ten kilograms of grain. The production of livestock is a major cause of global warming. It could well be that in the future more and more people will become vegetarians to help reduce global warming. If that happens (and grazing land is converted to grow grain), global food productivity may increase sharply.

Another reason for hope is the possibility that 3D printing technology will be harnessed to help improve global food supplies. We are currently seeing explosive growth in this technology, which uses a “layer by layer” approach to manufacture items entirely different from the factory production technique. Some scientists think that in the future people will have 3D printers that allow them to create food items from raw nutrients, in a very efficient way that bypasses the whole traditional agricultural process.

Despite all these reasons for optimism, there is still a significant risk that in this century there will be a huge shortfall between the amount of food we need and the amount of food we produce. You can do your part to help minimize this risk by sharply reducing (or ideally even stopping) your consumption of meat, particularly red meat. If you don't have the willpower to be a vegetarian, try skipping meat every day or 5 days a week. You will help decrease global warming, and decrease the chance of starvation in the future (not to mention decrease your chance of getting cancer and heart disease).