Thursday, June 19, 2014

Jon Foley, Feeding 9 Billion, and Will Resources Run Out?

A recent issue of National Geographic begins a year-long focus on the future of food. The cover story is written by Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. I've been following him on Twitter for a while. He's one of the most reasonable voices out there when it comes to agriculture practice and policy. Knowledgeable about how ag really works, but willing to critique practices and find better ways.

Foley was on MPR's the Daily Circuit in late April, so if you can't get the magazine issue, his 45 minutes (and the summary on the linked page) give a pretty good idea of the five strategies he outlines to feed nine billion people by 2050.

One caller and several commenters on the MPR page make the cornucopian argument that "we" will use technology to get ourselves out of the problems Foley describes. That may be, but it won't be because "we" sit back and wait for others to do it. Foley is one of the people who could make it work.

Just after listening to that bit of radio, I came upon an article called Why most resources don't run out.

I've written before about the bet between futurist (and population bomb predictor) Paul Ehrlich and libertarian Julian Simon. Ehrlich bet that the world would run out of several commodity metals by 1990. Simon won the bet handily.

Matt Ridley, the writer of this more recent argument for resource plenty,

studied various forms of ecology in an academic setting for seven years and then worked at the Economist magazine for eight years. When I was an ecologist (in the academic sense of the word, not the political one, though I also had antinuclear stickers on my car), I very much espoused the carrying-capacity viewpoint—that there were limits to growth. I nowadays lean to the view that there are no limits because we can invent new ways of doing more with less.
He continues,
In his recent book "The View from Lazy Point," the ecologist Carl Safina estimates that if everybody had the living standards of Americans, we would need 2.5 Earths because the world's agricultural land just couldn't grow enough food for more than 2.5 billion people at that level of consumption. Harvard emeritus professor E.O. Wilson, one of ecology's patriarchs, reckoned that only if we all turned vegetarian could the world's farms grow enough food to support 10 billion people.

Economists respond by saying that since large parts of the world, especially in Africa, have yet to gain access to fertilizer and modern farming techniques, there is no reason to think that the global land requirements for a given amount of food will cease shrinking any time soon. Indeed, Mr. Ausubel, together with his colleagues Iddo Wernick and Paul Waggoner, came to the startling conclusion that, even with generous assumptions about population growth and growing affluence leading to greater demand for meat and other luxuries, and with ungenerous assumptions about future global yield improvements, we will need less farmland in 2050 than we needed in 2000. (So long, that is, as we don't grow more biofuels on land that could be growing food.)

But surely intensification of yields depends on inputs that may run out? Take water, a commodity that limits the production of food in many places. Estimates made in the 1960s and 1970s of water demand by the year 2000 proved grossly overestimated: The world used half as much water as experts had projected 30 years before.

The reason was greater economy in the use of water by new irrigation techniques. Some countries, such as Israel and Cyprus, have cut water use for irrigation through the use of drip irrigation. Combine these improvements with solar-driven desalination of seawater world-wide, and it is highly unlikely that fresh water will limit human population.
Jonathan Foley is one of the people who should be at the table when Ridley gets the economists and ecologists together to hash out their different world views.

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