Popular Science News | Feeding 10 Billion People

Popular Science News – at the current rate of population growth, it is expected that 10 billion people will need to be fed long before the end of the century. When I was born, just after WW2, there was an estimated 3 billion people alive. Since then, over 4 billion more have joined me.

In theory, food is free. You plant a seed and it grows. You eat the food it produces and return the seed to the soil for next year’s food. This cycle is even part of mythology where cereal grain is planted instead of being eaten, a serious matter if you are starving, and you then wait for it to be resurrected in April, ready to be eaten.

In reality, each year 30% of the fossil fuel we produce is spent on this food; fertilising and watering it, cooking, transporting and disposing of the waste. For this reason, food prices are linked to the price of fuel. Corn, wheat and rice account for 60% of the calories we receive. This dependence of food on fuel has been so since the beginning of the ‘green revolution.’ This revolution started just after I was born and involved introducing new strains of high yield cereals which depended heavily on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. More food led to a larger population being sustained.

Another two billion people more are expected to be alive in the next 40 years, in our children’s life time and maybe even our own. With the present weather pattern uncertainty, it looks like food yields could decrease and therefore we may even need more fuel to produce the same amount of food we’re getting now. Starving people cause trouble through not only disease, but through social unrest. Starvation is not a pleasant alternative to feeding the world’s population.

Scientists are looking at ingenious ways of reducing the energy requirements of producing food, and some more obvious ones like eating local produce in order to cut down on transport energy requirements. ‘Renewable energy sources can also be better integrated into farms and food storage all along the production chain. Wind and solar power could provide electricity for warehouses and irrigation pumps. Food waste and processing residue, from tomato skins to corn stalks and sugar-processing by-products, can be converted into biogas to fuel factories and power refrigerators. Millions of subsistence farmers in the developing world are already using small-scale waste “digesters” to produce biogas for home use.’

Of course, as Malthus suggested, we can always try to control the population. This is a common cry from older people who already have children. Any reduction in the average number of children born now would mean an increased burden on them to keep the non-productive, long-living pensioners alive. If these pensioners are seen as sitting around getting fat, making themselves ill from excessive consumption, requiring scarce health resources, then perhaps population control at the other end of the age spectrum might also be considered?

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