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The obvious solution

March 14, 2016

In May of 2014, National Geographic launched an eight-part series of articles intended to explore how the planet’s growing population will feed itself during the coming decades.  Figures released by the United Nations suggest that the global population, which is currently estimated at 7.3 billion, will rise to more than 10 billion by 2050 and will be approaching 16 billion by the end of the century.  In an attempt to place these numbers in a realistic context, the series covered topics that included ancient eating habits, the impact of meat production on natural resources, genetically modified crops, and even the emotional influence of food on human behavior, all with an eye to suggesting how present eating patterns could be maintained into the future.

At no point in the series did the writers or editors bother to suggest the most obvious solution of all: If the Earth’s population is having difficulty feeding itself, reduce the population.

This answer to the question, which apparently seemed so obscure or implausible that National Geographic couldn’t bring itself to mention it, was already seen as inevitable by science fiction authors more than half a century ago.  In 1953, Isaac Asimov, a biochemist by profession, stated in The Caves of Steel that the largest population the Earth could support was eight billion, and then only if they were all housed in cities for maximum efficiency in production and distribution of goods.  Still earlier, in Foundation, he had created an extreme case of overpopulation in the imperial planet Trantor, which had been terraformed so that its entire surface was one continuous building and which was completely dependent for its food and raw materials on imports.  The population of Trantor was forty billion.*  After the fall of the Empire later in the story, the peripheral kingdom of Anacreon ruled at least thirty-one inhabited planets with a combined population of nineteen billion.  Rendezvous with Rama, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1973 and set in 2130, speaks of Earth’s difficulty in reducing its population below a goal of one billion for long-term sustainability.  Clarke’s subsequent novel Imperial Earth, depicting events in the year 2276, twice mentions a terrestrial population of five hundred million.  With one exception, Earth’s present civilization has long since passed, or is about to pass, all of those milestones for manageable population, and by 2100 it will not be so far from even the exaggerated picture of Trantor.  Meanwhile, terrestrial governments keep giving out tax credits and medals as a reward for bearing children, and trust to fertilizers and high-yield crops to ensure the survival of those children.

Food production in the twenty-first century is an inefficient process due to the distortions of the marketplace caused by monetary systems, national borders, tariffs, and regulations.  More significantly, it is an extremely fragile process.  Consider the origins of food in modern civilization.  Consider the complex path that food must follow before it can be consumed.  A loaf of bread begins with a single seed, its characteristics refined in the laboratory through pure Darwinian trial and error over a period of decades.  This seed is planted by a poor farmer hired by its developer to produce copies of it in bulk. When subsequent generations of seeds are harvested, they are shipped thousands of miles to the developer’s distribution center near the place where they will be grown.  After they are purchased by a farmer who intends to use them, they are then sent on to his farm.  He and his employees plant them in soil tilled by tractors obtained from a distant factory, fertilized with nitrates obtained from another distant factory, and irrigated by the overflow of a dam hundreds of miles away or a deep well feeding its water through miles of piping.  As the seeds grow into plants, they tend them with pesticides and herbicides obtained from still other remote sources, and when the plants are ripe, they harvest them with yet other varieties of machines.  Once again, the seeds are shipped hundreds of miles from the field in which they were grown, this time to a mill where they are ground into flour.  In its turn the flour is dispatched to a warehouse, and then on to a supermarket or a bakery before it ever passes into the hands of its eventual consumer.

All foodstuffs in commercial production today follow a similar pattern of production.  If one link in this chain is broken, if the transportation system fails, or there is a fertilizer shortage, if a well dries up, if a dam silts up, then food cannot be produced.  The farther back along the line the break, the more drastic its effects.  The world’s food supply is entirely reliant upon a workable transport network and a few sources of seeds and chemicals used to support industrial-style agricultural operations, which in turn are the only methods of food production capable of sustaining the planet’s large urban populations.  Local production and consumption, which is a far more resilient method, has been extinguished due to its nominal inefficiency at this task.  More than that, it has become impossible.  The constant use of high-nitrogen fertilizer for decades has enervated vast tracts of farmland to a point where they could not grow crops without a continued supply of such fertilizer; insects and weeds have responded to the evolutionary demands placed on them by pesticides by increasing their own resistance to a point where their presence could not be tolerated at all without the use of pesticides.  The present system must somehow manage to continue operating without a break, ever, in order to prevent global famine.  And all to feed a population which has more than tripled since the end of World War II, and which will triple again shortly.

An increasing population will increase the strain on this delicate system.  A decreasing population will lessen the strain, and permit it to be redistributed more logically and more locally.  The solution to the problem is an easy one.  In theory.

*Asimov speaks of Trantor as consuming the produce of “twenty agricultural worlds”.  It is reasonable to assume that Trantor, as the administrative capital of the First Galactic Empire, would have a standard of living comparable to that of the modern United States.  According to an estimate made by Popular Science in 2011, it would take the resources of four planets the size of Earth to raise the standard of living of Earth’s entire population (then approximately 7 billion) to that of the United States.  Extrapolating those figures suggests that Trantor’s population of 40 billion would require twenty-three, not twenty, agricultural worlds to maintain its urban civilization.


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