Can We Feed and Save the Planet?

Challenges of population control and food production need to be tackled in tandem

We are eating ourselves out of house and home. Recently, in the September 24 issue of Nature, Johan Rockström and his colleagues proposed 10 “planetary boundaries” to define safe limits of human activity. (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.) Those limits include caps on greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, the global conversion of land cover to cropland, and other mega-impacts on the earth’s ecosystems. Yet humanity has already exceeded several of them and is on a trajectory to exceed most of the others. The rising demand for food plays a large role in those transgressions.

The green revolution that made grain production soar gave humanity some breathing space, but the continuing rise in population and demand for meat production is exhausting that buffer. The father of the green revolution, Norman Borlaug, who passed away in September at the age of 95, made exactly this point in 1970 when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize: “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.”

That common effort was inconsistent at best and sometimes essentially nonexistent. Since 1970 the population has risen from 3.7 billion to 6.9 billion and continues to increase by around 80 million a year. Food production per person has declined in some big regions, notably sub-Saharan Africa. In India the doubling of population has absorbed almost all of the increase in grain production.

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