Food Crisis: Can The Earth Hold Up Much Longer?

Inevitably, inexorably, each question we ask leads on to the next in today’s world. The whole Affluence discussion involves presuppositions about growth in national economics. These in turn involve international economics. These inevitably throw up ultimate questions about how long we can maintain the growth patterns (which are resource-munching patterns), and still have any hopes of survival on Planet Earth. In other words, while we casual Westerners argue our toss about prices and incomes, and increases in real terms of our standards of living, are we not in fact discussing how soon we want the End to come for all people?

The question is a genuine question. But the experts do not agree about the answer. Even in this, ordinary intelligent ‘we-want-to-be-responsible’ people feel fooled and cheated. If mankind really is facing the End so soon, we want to do what we can to discuss it, to help formulate right decisions about it, and to stir up informed public support for the hard actions that are called for. Instead we find ourselves on the touchline of an argument in which those who have access to the facts cannot decide how to interpret them. And one interpretation of the facts (or a series of the facts) is that we may already have reached, or are about to reach, the point of no return.

food crisis

Last year the Observer published a series of three debates,’ on the crisis in food production, on the crisis in energy-production, and on the crisis in growth-targets in General economic policies. In each debate they brought into confrontation an expert who was a pessimist and one who was an optimist. This certainly made for good discussion. It added, at the same time, to a reader’s sense of futility in the face of what are almost certainly ultimate questions so far as man-on-earth is concerned.


Take the fundamental human question, are we going to go on having enough to eat? All of us in this one small world.

The optimist (in this case Dr Norman Borlaug, the ‘Green Revolution’ expert and Nobel Peace Prize winner) points to the hopeful facts. Because of new cereal strains now being planted, India, for instance, was almost able to double her wheat production between 1965 and 1972. In Pakistan in the same period production increased from 4 million tons to about 8 million tons of wheat. Similar but less spectacular increases were obtained in rice in India.

Such progress is small compared with total need. At best it may buy a little more time while we come to grips with the population growth problem.

One recurrent answer in this discussion concerns land-use, the fact that ‘the world is using only one-tenth of its land area for cultivation.’ However only about one-third could reasonably be used for such purposes, and to do so would require enormous sums to be spent on irrigation and fertilizers. Experience shows that man is somewhat better at creating deserts than at long-term expansion of acreage of useable land. Something can obviously be done, but it will never be enough by itself.

We are already nearing the stage when fertilizers will join oil and other major resources as major bargaining factors in politics. It remains a dream that scientific man may develop cereals which will do without nitrogen fertilizers by the development of those nodules which can take nitrogen directly from the air, and convert it into forms the plant can use directly. Meanwhile we go on pouring most of our phosphates into the sea (whence they are irrecoverable), in the form of sewage. The ‘answer’ is said to be the recycling of sewage back to the land, and this is a matter of most immediate urgency.

The pessimist (here Professor Georg Borgstrom of Michigan University) is particularly concerned about water shortages. These lead him to predict we are only about a year away from starvation.

The most characteristic thing about rainfall is its irregularity. Records for India over a century show that each fifth year you have either an excessive monsoon or a short one. Each tenth year you have two consecutive bad years. You only need to have a couple of bad years over much of the tropics and, with very little spare food in the world’s storehouses, you face inevitable large-scale famine.

One crazy aspect of this is that we put all our costly efforts into storing water, when we should be storing food in the good years. The losses from storing water are enormous, but you can easily combat food spoilage.

Both experts agree that there are limits to the use of the oceans for increasing food production. The questions they raise put tiny details like our `cod-war’ into grim perspective.

It is possible we might double, or even eventually treble, the world’s fish catches. If we go for such targets, however, the risks of local or general ‘over-fishing’ are tremendous.

Much more basic is the question of what we do already with the fish we catch. Approximately half goes into the feeding troughs of Europe and N. America for animal production, primarily broiler chickens, eggs, white meat and milk. This huge flow of proteins largely accounts for our very high productivity and low pricing in animal production. Much of the world’s fish protein comes from its hungry half. And reaches the un-hungry half as fish meal or fish-oil (a great deal of which goes to Europe’s margarine industry rather than to the fat-hungry lands).

We shall very soon reach the point where the hungry world will insist on retaining its own protein resources. Similarly with increasing cereal production, surpluses are going to stay where they are most needed. India, for instance, will not go on exporting peanuts to England to feed our cattle. They need to stay right where they are, to help feed Indians.

Tackle this where you will, you raise doubts and unearth further problems. Professor Borgstrom sees the 705 as inevitably focusing on unrest in the cities of the world, when food production and distribution break down.

Dr Borlaug agrees, whilst still believing we have time to tackle the twin problems of food and population. If all governments do not face and solve these, ‘the world will disintegrate’, however. Very simple solutions (increase the areas we cultivate, invent better cereal strains, develop proper irrigation, improve water or food storage procedures, improve food production, use the oceans) cannot be found for exceedingly complex situations. If the young of the developing world would catch the spark of hope in constructive change and get the message regarding stabilizing population growth, there would be a small chance we’d make it. And that is the optimistic view.

The pessimist realizes the unlikelihood of response when he says that hope lies only in developing a sense of ‘universal solidarity’, and in massive re-education in Europe and N. America over the true world-food situation. He talks of the ‘insensitivity gap’ that exists in the Christian heartlands over these matters. He too rejects any ‘simple’ solutions like synthetic food or land reform. He concludes: Let’s be realistic about this: we’re not going to remove all hunger. All we can do, if we’re sensible, is to reduce it below a danger point. As it is now, it’s moving rapidly to a very grave universal crisis.

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