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How the world gets fed now, and tomorrow

At the start of the 21st century, one third of all the dry land on the planet is devoted to making food for humans. Cropland and pasture for livestock covers an area as big as all of South America. It's a huge area - and there's one big catch. We can't actually feed everyone on Earth now, and there's many more to come. The United Nations expects the world's population to reach 9 billion by 2050 - which means another 2.3 billion people will need to be fed.

How the world feeds itself now

To feed this growing population, we're going to have to produce more food. The logical answer would seem to be make more farmland. But that isn't as easy as it used to be. If you've ever seen movies of the green countryside of England, you've seen part of the problem. Those lovely hills of sheep pasture and crops all used to be forests, but in the 2000 years since the Romans arrived in England, the trees were slowly chopped down to become farmland. In the United States, pioneers did the same thing, but faster. When settlers first traveled through Utah*, there were forests so big that it took days to travel through them. 800 year-old trees were so big that forty men and their horses could shelter in their hollows when rain fell. Those forests were chopped down, too, to make room for crops. All over the world, the story is the same - we've chopped down trees to create farmland.

The problem is that there is not much land left to plough. Farmland needs to have fertile soil and water, and most of the good land has already been taken. Most of the two-thirds of the planet that hasn't been farmed is either too cold, rocky or mountainous to be of much use. Nonetheless, hungry nations are getting desperate. In Egypt, vast irrigation canals are being dug into the desert to create cropland, at great expense. Saudi Arabia, which has lots of oil money and deserts, but not many farms, is buying farmland in neighboring countries. China is also running out of good land, so they have been buying farmland in Africa.

Africa's problem

In many ways, Africa is one of the keys to this problem. It has sixty percent of the world's remaining potential farmland. It is also home to half of the world's hungry people. Strangely, most of those people are farmers. The reason for this odd situation is that Africa's farmers tend to be single families on small plots of land in countries that are too poor to provide much, if any, irrigation or modern chemical fertilizer. So they rely on rain water, at a time when many parts of Africa have been suffering from droughts. The big crop yields which North American farmers enjoy are thanks to high-tech fertilizers, scientifically grown seeds and lots of water that arrives through canals and wells. African farmers usually don't have those ingredients ( much less electricity in their villages), so their yields are often too low to even support their own families consistently.

To improve the productivity of their land, Africans and other developing nations like India need access to water and modern fertilizer. Some nations, like India, have had this in the past, and even attained food self-sufficiency in the 1970s. China, too, once fed more of its population than it does now. The key was to use specific kinds of seeds in tandem with fertilizers and lots of water. The problem is that to deliver those ingredients requires consistent government help. Private companies can't make much money from building and maintaining irrigation canals for farmers. Even in the United States, state and federal governments pay the bills for the dams and canals which deliver water for irrigating fields in California, Ohio and elsewhere. In the developing world, however, nations stopped investing in their agricultural infrastructure during the 1980s. Western nations also stopped encouraging these nations to invest in agriculture, cutting back aid for farmers. The system slowly started to unravel. By the 2000s, many countries that had been able to fed themselves, and even export food, were now dependent on external food aid.

Needless hunger

In the 2000s, the world is hungrier than it needs to be. People who could be growing their own wheat are going hungry, and dependent on aid from the West. In many cases, the West has to share some of the blame in ways that don't show up on the evening news. We have all seen images of American food being handed out in African nations which are suffering from famine. What the pictures don't show is that this free food often comes with strings attached which make it hard for these same hungry countries to feed themselves.

The United States, for example, can send food aid to needy countries because it produces more food than it eats. There are regular surpluses of wheat and corn. If these extra supplies were sold in the United States, the prices for those crops would go down, and farmers would make less money per pound of food produced. Making less money this year means having less to spend on planting next year's seeds, fertilizer and equipment. So farmers would have to cut back on planting for the next harvest, creating possible shortages the next year. To avoid this uncertainty, the government heavily subsidizes the farming industry and makes sure that surplus crops do not get sold on the American market. The extra food is sold abroad or sent out as free food to needy countries.

On the surface this makes a lot of sense for everyone. The American farmer gets steady prices for his/her crops, while hungry people elsewhere get food for free. But here's the catch: when free food arrives, the local food becomes worthless. African farmers in the hungry country can't sell their food to reduce the famine if they are competing against free food from Western nations. So they do the logical thing: they store it for next year. So, in the 2003 famine in Ethiopia, triggered by a drought, American food trucks drove past warehouses full of Ethiopian grain. The Ethiopians didn't have enough to fully avert the crisis, but it could have helped. Yet, once the aid arrived, they couldn't sell their food at all, so they held onto it. The farmers who had grown this grain made no money, so they couldn't invest in the next year's harvest, either. So free food made a bad situation worse.

To avoid this paradoxical situation, the Western governments could have sent money first, to buy all the local grain, then sent food to fill the gap. But in the American case, that is actually against the law. Food and farming lobbies have insured that when America sets out to alieve poverty, it must be with American-grown food, sent in American ships. This makes the food arrive late, and free, which depresses the local agricultural economy.

Water, water everywhere....

If the world is going to feed itself, and another two billion in the near future, agriculture needs to change how it uses water. Today's high yield crops in the West require a lot of irrigation. This artificial rain enables crops to grow much faster and in higher densities than if they relied simply on the rain. In California, massive farms in the desert exist only because of water delivered by canals from the Colorado River. Many of our winter vegetables and fruits come from the Imperial Valley, which is a lush green oasis surrounded by desert. But our crops are very thirsty. Two-thirds of all the water humans use goes to agriculture. So, if we need more food, we are going to need more water, and that's a problem.

Our planet may look like it has a lot of water, but there isn't that much that we humans can use for farming. 97 percent of Earth's water is salty. We rely on the 3 percent which is freshwater. Two thirds of that water is inaccessible, locked up as ice at the poles, or in glaciers and at the top of mountains. Human civilization relies on just one percent of the planet's water. And it is running out.

How is that possible? Most of the water used by agriculture does not come from rain or rivers, but wells. Ground water is often present when there is no river nearby, so farmers have relied on it for a long time. But with a world population that grew by 5 billion in the last century, we have been drawing that ground water at an unprecedented rate. Already, major countries are running into water problems. In mainland China, most of the farming is done in the north. They have drained the local rivers dry such that there are bridges over streams that no longer exist. Wells are dry or very close to empty. Massive construction projects are being planned to draw water up from rivers in the south. In the United States, the Midwest relies on a massive undergound acquifier which has already dropped by 100 feet in some areas already. Wells are being dug deeper and deeper each year to keep up with falling levels.

The situation is similar to the oil economy. Agriculture relies on an ancient, finite resource, ground water, that will not be replenished anytime soon once we use it. When ground water is brought to the surface, most of it evaporates, and then travels one thousand miles on average before it falls to the Earth as rain. Much of it ends up going into rivers, which flow into the oceans, making ancient freshwater into useless modern salt water. This can all happen within as little as three weeks. Rains will replenish the underground water, but very slowly. It can take thousands of years to replace water that a diesel or electric pump drains in a year. So, in human time scales, ground water is a finite resource. Once it is gone, it is gone.

How the world grows its food is going to have to change since we are not going to find more freshwater. The Earth has limits, and this is one of them.

So what do we do?

There are a few solutions.

1) Eat less meat. It sounds simple, and perhaps a bit hippy, but it makes a lot of sense from a scientific point of view. The modern Western diet features a lot of beef. Modern beef eat a lot of grain, grown in fields that rely on groundwater. Cows need a lot of grain to turn into steaks and hamburger, and waste a massive amount of water along the way. For example, it takes 2400 liters of water - 600 gallons - to create one hamburger.

It would be far more efficient to t have humans eat the grains as bread, as corn, and skip the cow stage. Our ancestors never ate this much high-fat protein, and they were in better shape and weighed a lot less than we do. The modern western diet of meat at most meals isn't a right, it is an historical aberration. We could afford it while we had lots of water, lots of land, and lots of cheap oil to ship cattle raised on the other side of the country. But that era is ending, and we need to be realistic about this. We as consumers can actually help on this issue by changing our diet in a way that will help our own health, and make our agriculture last longer. This doesn't mean not eating any meat at all, but eating less.

2) Adopting water-efficient farming methods. Currently, irrigation acts like rain - water falls on the fields, and the plants soak up what they can, with the rest evaporating. This method is wasteful, especially when the water comes from underground. There are some alternatives. The Israelis, who have significant water shortage issues, have developed drip irrigation systems that deliver far less water, directly to the roots of the plants. Other possible avenues include new kinds of plants that have been bred to be more drought resistant. The general public may be skeptical about Global Warming, but the seed companies are believers. They have been creating strains of corn and wheat that require far less water, and can survive a full-on drought. So far, from I've read, the plants are still a good deal smaller than common varieties, so there is still no quick fix.

The world's population was 1.6 billion in 1900. Today it is approaching 7 billion. That population growth was made possible by our ability to massively increase the amount of food we could produce. If we don't find new ways to grow food, we face the first unintentional population decrease in centuries.

Steve the Bread Guy