Friday, April 18, 2014
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The Food Threat to Human Civilization

PALO ALTO – Humanity faces a growing complex of serious, highly interconnected environmental problems, including much-discussed challenges like climate change, as well as the equally or more serious threat to the survival of organisms that support our lives by providing critical ecosystem services such as crop pollination and agricultural pest control. We face numerous other threats as well: the spread of toxic synthetic chemicals worldwide, vast epidemics, and a dramatic decline in the quality and accessibility of mineral resources, water, and soils.

Resource wars are already with us; if a “small” nuclear resource war erupted between, say, India and Pakistan, we now know that the war alone would likely end civilization.

But our guess is that the most serious threat to global sustainability in the next few decades will be one on which there is widespread agreement: the growing difficulty of avoiding large-scale famines. As the 2013 World Economic Forum Report put it: “Global food and nutrition security is a major global concern as the world prepares to feed a growing population on a dwindling resource base, in an era of increased volatility and uncertainty.” Indeed, the report notes that more than “870 million people are now hungry, and more are at risk from climate events and price spikes.” Thus, measures to “improve food security have never been more urgently needed.”

In fact, virtually all such warnings, in our view, underestimate the food problem. For example, micronutrient deficiencies may afflict as many as two billion additional people. And many other sources of vulnerability are underrated: the potential impact of climate disruption on farming and fisheries; how a shift away from fossil-fuel consumption will impair food production; how agriculture itself, a major emitter of greenhouse gases, accelerates climate change; and the consequences of groundwater overpumping and the progressive deterioration of soils. Indeed, agriculture is also a leading cause of biodiversity loss –& and thus loss of ecosystem services supplied to farming and other human enterprises – as well as a principal source of global toxification.

Perhaps most important, virtually all analyses assume that the human population will grow by 2.5 billion people by 2050, rather than seeking ways to reduce that number. The optimism of many analysts concerning our ability to feed these additional billions is quite disturbing, given that millions annually die of malnutrition already, and many more are so malnourished as to have degraded lives. If it will be so easy to feed a population 35% larger, why isn’t everyone well nourished today?

Five steps are typically recommended to solve the food problem: stop increasing land for agriculture (to preserve natural ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; increase the efficiency of fertilizer, water, and energy; become more vegetarian; and reduce food wastage. To this one could add, stop wrecking the oceans, greatly enlarge investment in agricultural research and development, and move proper nutrition for all to the very top of the global policy agenda.

All of these steps require long-recommended changes in human behavior. Most people fail to recognize the growing urgency of adopting them because they do not understand the agricultural system and its complex, non-linear (disproportionate) connections to the mechanisms driving environmental deterioration. All inputs needed to feed each additional person will, on average, come from scarcer, poorer, and more distant sources, disproportionately more energy will be used, and disproportionately more greenhouse gases will be generated.

More than a millennium of changing temperature and precipitation patterns, all vital to crop production, has put the planet on a path toward increasingly severe storms, droughts, and floods. Thus, maintaining – let alone expanding – food production will be increasingly difficult.

A popular movement is needed to direct cultural awareness toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and the agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply. Only then could we begin to address seriously the population disaster – consider the nutritional/health benefits of humanely ending population growth well before we reach nine billion people and beginning a gradual decline thereafter.

The best way, in our view, to achieve such population shrinkage is to give full rights and opportunities to women, and to make modern contraception and back-up abortion accessible to all sexually active people. While the degree to which these steps would reduce total fertility rates is a matter of controversy, they would deliver significant social and economic benefits by making huge reservoirs of fresh brain power available to solve our problems, while saving hundreds of thousands of lives by reducing the number of unsafe abortions.

Can humanity avoid a starvation-driven collapse? Yes, we can – though we currently put the odds at just 10%. As dismal as that sounds, we believe that, for the benefit of future generations, it is worth struggling to make it 11%.

One of our most distinguished colleagues, biogeographer and energy expert James Brown of the University of New Mexico, disagrees. He puts the odds of sustaining human civilization at about 1%, but thinks that it’s worth trying to increase it to 1.1%.

Developing foresight intelligence and mobilizing civil society for sustainability are central goals of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB), based at Stanford University. Those who join the MAHB join the best of global civil society in the fight to avoid the end of civilization.

Read more from our "Visionary Voices" series

Photograph of Anne H. Ehrlich: (c) Anne Hammersky.

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  1. CommentedNelson Pitter

    Nowadays It is very difficult to produce sufficient farm food without any use of fertilizers.
    Further the use of pesticides is not optional.
    How we can expect pure harmless food quality.
    I think we should accept the change.

  2. CommentedGunnar Rundgren

    I do agree that population growth is an issue, but I don't agree fully with the arguments here. People were starving when we were 1 billion, 3 billion and now also when we are 7 billion. It is still mainly poverty and inequality that make people starve, and not biological limits. It is technically possible to feed even more people - yields can increase a lot in many places. The problem with production is that it is not done in a sustainable way, and that we occupy a too big share of the total biosphere for human civilization. In that sense, a smaller population would be beneficial.

  3. CommentedC. Jayant Praharaj

    The authors should address the question of the encroachment of non-agricultural activities on natural ecosystems. Today's earthlings and future earthlings will have to determine the most optimum and equitable use of land for agriculture, ecosystem sustenance ( keeping in mind environmental stability ) and nonagricultural activities.

  4. CommentedAvraam Dectis

    We are only one discovery away from solving all food problems.

    When we discover a way to produce virtually free environmentally nonpolluting energy, food problems will disappear.

    Free energy means we can generate as much pure water as we want, which we could use to irrigate the deserts and produce an abundance of food for everyone.

    Free energy means we can create nonpolluting virtually free hydrogen fuel from water.

    All of the concerns stated in this article are valid and hunger and malnutrition are completely unnecessary, even today. Hopefully we will, in a relatively short matter of time, produce the discoveries to take care of all these problems.

    There is no compelling reason for energy to remain expensive. The entire universe is effectively energy.

    Avraam J. Dectis

  5. CommentedMichael Lee

    Shouldn't Mr. Ehrlich first explain why his similar predictions from the late 1960s failed so spectacularly?

    If markets are failing, what is his proposed approach to managing the global economy, population control and resource allocation?

    Should we outsource all of this to the Chinese politburo? If not, then who does he believe can safe humanity from itself?

  6. CommentedNicolas Alexandratos

    Ehrlich’s question: “If it will be so easy to feed a population 35% larger, why isn’t everyone well nourished today?” fails to focus on the real problem. Firstly, nobody says it will be easy; and, secondly, really no need to comment on why so many people go hungry. Traditionally hunger has existed and persisted in times of global food gluts as well as in those of global scarcity. The problem of food production, or rather availability (production plus net imports), is not global but local. The food vs. population problem (in the sense of food scarcity as the explanatory factor in the persistence of hunger) is principally relevant to countries/localities with high population growth, poor agricultural resources/technology and limited access to imported food. You may have global overproduction of food but if these people have no access to it, the global glut can be irrelevant to them, except in the form of lower world prices if they could afford to import, or more plentiful food aid. For latest assessment to 2050, see World agriculture towards 2030/2050: The 2012 Revision -

  7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    All the problems mentioned in the article, the whole spectrum of the global crisis originates from one root problem: the human attitude towards the natural system we exist in.
    We base all our activity on the belief that humans are above nature and the general, absolute laws governing nature do not apply to us, evolution stopped with us and we can apply our present static "human laws" to the constantly changing, evolving natural system.
    Based on this attitude we explore, get to know nature in order to exploit it for our own use, regardless of any consequences (which most of the time we have no idea about), and we behave the same within human society with each other.
    But our fundamental belief is wrong, we are part of the natural system, our biological body, our human psyche, every desire, our whole being is based on the same principles, laws as the most simple living cells, bacteria, and the ongoing evolutionary process with its changing conditions also apply to us as to any other species.
    Humanity with all its technological, mental development, breakthroughs (which were and are basically nothing else but copying, emulating natural processes, templates) is simply a speck in the vast and infinitely more powerful system we exist in.
    If we want to continue our evolution, development, no partial, superficial solution will succeed, only a fundamental change in how we see ourselves within the system, how we adapt to the system instead of wanting to change the system to our liking.
    Humanity's superiority above other lifeforms is coming from our ability of critical self assessment, and active self change. Humans are the only creatures capable of becoming active partners with the system not in an instinctive manner, but being fully aware, understanding it and maximizing its potential.
    In this way we could benefit much more than ever before, but not in a way we want it, how we think it should be done based on our own delusions, "inventions", but by following nature's lead, flowing with it.
    The true hero is not the one always charging ahead, destroying killing to the point of self extermination, the true hero bows his head, rises above himself like a rodeo rider over the bull, and blends into the natural, interconnected living system around him.

  8. CommentedNicolas Bollion

    A few basic facts: since 1970 the percentage of people in third world countries who suffer malnutrition has dropped from 38% to a little less than 15% today in spite of population growth of 3 billion people and in spite of the fact that population grew and still grows faster in Africa, where the malnutrition problem is worse than in other developing countries. In fact this population growth is to a large extent the result of the fact that ever less people starve, in addition to other advances.

    More people doesn't necessarely mean more hunger, at least not in relative terms, because more people means more food producers. I agree with the autors on one thing, albeit for a different reason: fertility rate in Africa should drop, as is today taking place in other developing countries, not necessarely because there is overpopulation but in order to reduce the dependency ratio. That would mean relatively more food producers.

  9. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    Malthusian warnings all through history have one thing in common; they have all proved to be wrong. But you only have to be right once! Maybe it will be this time?

    The good question about how we feed a 35% increase when we have starving people now deserves a serious answer. But first it might be reasonable to note who and where and why people starve. They starve because of POVERTY and inequality and powerlessness. It has very little to do with food. Famine countries are often food exporters and those taking the decisions are often profitably obese in the presence of others starving.

    It is misleading nonsense to display concern for food production while noting the existence of both starvation and great wastage.

    1. CommentedAndrew N Mason

      You know that one in five people in the USA is food insecure no? Food insecurity will soon hit everyone, and inequality is doing no good to that. Not here (in the US) not anywhere.

      Its ironic though. over 20% of food waste in the us is postharvest CONSUMER WASTE. Yes, people throw away the food in a manner that is simply appalling. Over 30% of food is wasted globally and in third world countries most of this is due to supply chain inefficiencies.

      I think we can survive this one... But we all need to get our acts together, and rich countries must lead the way and moderate consumption (and waste) there is a lot of low hanging fruit to address this issue.

  10. Commentedchad bircher

    The entire premise of this is absolutely ridiculous. The amount of food grown in the US has increased over the last few decades while the number of acres has decreased. Food production is massively more efficient in nations like Brazil where clear cutting forests for temporary grazing land has basically ended. Desalination techniques are improving to where it is nearly cheaper to build desalination plants in Los Angelos than to bring in water through an Aquifer. With a slightly greater improvement in desalination techniques drought will effectively end in lowland areas (that is, most of our farmland). Finally, food production has historically been greater during warm periods than cold periods. If the planet warms by a couple degrees large areas that are inhospitable to farming will become hospitable.

    Are people hungry? Yes, but almost half the food in underdeveloped countries goes to rot, and food is held by the powerful. Hunger may be an issue, but famine is not. An improvement in food storage and delivery in countries like China and India would go a long way to providing enough food for an additional 2.5 Billion people. Where you get that number from I don't know, since the UN predicts global population maxing around 9 billion (less than 2 billion more than currently alive). Not using our corn for ethanol would go pretty far as well.

    Malnutrition is another issue, but things like golden rice may have the ability to reduce many types of malnutrition.