By 2040, the world’s population is predicted to rise to nine billion. That means two billion more mouths to feed. Even now, the earth groans under the weight of those numbers. More than 800 million people are malnourished. Another two billion are short of essential micronutrients, which affect health. A billion more consume too many calories and are obese.
What can be done? In his new book, The End of Plenty: The Race To Feed A Crowded World, Joel K. Bourne Jr., a former senior editor for National Geographic, travels from India to China and Africa to find answers.
Speaking from his home in North Carolina, he explains how biofuels distort food prices; how Iran offers an unlikely model for reducing population; and why the world needs a Pink Revolution. (Read more about how to feed our growing planet.)
A recent report by the British Foreign Office suggests that based on climate trends, failure to change course will uproot the global food supply system and trigger an unprecedented epidemic of food riots by 2040. That’s just alarmism, isn’t it?
We’re used to hearing these things come from more radical environmental groups. But when it comes from the Foreign Office—and the study was based on a university study in coordination with Lloyd’s of London—one of the most conservative and oldest insurers on the planet, then you take notice.
These are no longer outliers. These are mainstream groups extremely concerned about the future of the world’s food supply, and what it means not only for our environment, but for the stability of financial markets and the political stability of hundreds of millions of people, primarily in the developing countries, who are increasingly subject to food shocks around the world.
Tell us a bit about your own background in agriculture and how it shaped your interest in this subject.
I grew up in a small town in eastern North Carolina and my grandfather had a farm. We grew corn, soybeans, cotton and tobacco, which was the big money crop. I spent most of my youth driving tractors or hunting and fishing and always assumed I was going to be a farmer. So I only applied to one university, which was the agriculture school at NC State.
I felt like farming was going to be my destiny. But about two-thirds of the way into my university career, the scales fell from my eyes and I ended up making a severe left turn into journalism and never looked back.
We live in an age of cheap food. Has malnutrition declined in the last decades with the price of food?
We’ve had a couple of great instances where we’ve really hit hunger and malnutrition on the head. The Green Revolution was one of the most transformative experiences the globe has ever seen. We dramatically increased the availability of basic food grain. This made food cheaper, increased people’s incomes, and made their diet more diverse because they didn’t have to spend so much on rice and wheat.
The goal of the FAO was to halve world hunger from 1990 to 2015. They just had a big report patting themselves on the back saying, “Look what we’ve done, we’ve made great strides – we’ve only got 800 million people who are chronically malnourished in the world!” We also have is two billion people, nearly one third of the world’s population, who suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.
This has an enormous impact; if kids don’t get the right nutrient mix before they’re two years old, they suffer stunting, mental disabilities; they’re less healthy and productive.
That number hasn’t really budged. So, we’ve got 800 million that can’t get enough calories, two billion that can’t get enough nutrients, and a billion people that are obese, who are inflating the costs of our medical system and medical care, who are also decreasing productivity because they’re getting too many unhealthy calories. So, the world food system is in real trouble!
Thomas Malthus, the 19th century British economist, said humanity’s biggest problem was “the passion between the sexes,’ in other words, population growth. He’s right, isn’t he?
You and I, growing up in the middle of last century, were taught Malthus was wrong about everything. Everyone heaped scorn upon him. But I’ve become a fan of Malthus. He was a brilliant mathematician, who looked at economic issues in ways that few had before, especially population.
His basic premise was that humans have the ability to double in population. In other words, our growth is exponential, whereas our agricultural expertise cannot do that. It can only increase numerically. That was the greatest challenge even before Malthus’ time, and which we’re still wrestling with. We have much more ability to produce people than we do to produce the food to feed them.
The pope recently came out strongly on climate change. He didn’t mention birth control, though. Is the Catholic Church a major stumbling block in alleviating world hunger?
As soon as I read that I told my wife that if the pope changed his tune on family planning I just might have to convert. But if you look at the Catholic Church, even in some of the traditionally Catholic countries, like France, they’re already practicing family planning. Even Latin America, where the pope comes from, has had tremendous success reducing fertility rates. So I’m hoping that this pope will be interested in making a change to the teaching on birth control, and that would have a tremendous effect.
Iran emerges as an unlikely model for population control. What are they doing that’s so effective?
Iran is a really interesting example. It’s one of the countries that came hard up against their population and economic wall after their war with Iraq ended in the late ‘80s.
What they decided to do was quite simple. They decided to make basic health insurance and primary care available to all. They had this huge fertility rate in rural areas, larger than many countries in Africa. Iranian women in rural areas in the 1980s were having seven, eight, or nine children. So they started this system of Health Houses where they trained smart young men and women from each village to become the equivalent of an army medic. The men would deal with sanitation issues and, because it’s a Muslim country, would deal with the men. The women would deal with family planning and health. It was incredibly successful. Iran’s fertility rate went from more than six at end of the 80s to less than two by the early 2000s. So in 15 years, they made the demographic transition, which according to my reporting, was the record in the world.
Biofuels like ethanol have been promoted as “green” energy. You’re not a fan, are you?
[Laughs] I’m not a fan of the current system, which uses food crops like soybeans, corn, sugar cane, rapeseed, canola and palm oil grown on arable land. Right now we’re taking 40 percent of the United States corn crop and feeding it to our cars. That represents enough corn to feed everyone in Africa for a year!
Another consequence is that oil and gas markets, which are incredibly volatile, are now intricately linked to food prices. The biofuel industry screams blue murder every time someone suggests it but several studies, including by the OECD and World Bank have shown a direct link between the rise in biofuels and the rise in basic commodity prices in the first decade of the 2000s.
The sad thing in the U.S. it that it’s become this enormous subsidy to the corn farmers—already the most heavily subsidized farmers on the planet. It’s just one more paycheck to U.S. corn farmers, which they don’t need and we don’t need to be paying for because the economic and environmental benefits of corn ethanol are very small.
These days there is a lot of money to be made from food even without growing it. Tell us about commodities trading and how it distorts food prices.
When I started looking at this stuff, I started seeing all these reports dealing with the linkages between transportation fuel, biofuel and commodity prices. It turns out that the same deregulation of the big banks that occurred in 2000, which led to the great housing bubble and, of course, the greatest recession since the Great Depression, also deregulated the commodities market.
As the real estate bubble burst, investment banks, like Barclays and Goldman Sachs, were desperately trying desperately to find places to stick their money. So, they created these new investments called “commodity baskets.”
Essentially, you’re betting that the price of corn or wheat, or whatever is in your commodity basket, is going to go up or go down. It’s pure speculation. As a result, an enormous amount of capital flowed into commodity markets right about the time that prices were starting to rise. Several economists have noted that it had an enormous impact by inflating commodity prices around the globe.
So, no matter how much food we grow, the poor and hungry of the world are going to have to compete with big biofuel and the wolves of Wall Street. And that’s a very difficult thing to do.
GMOs are either hailed as a silver bullet to end world hunger or a Pandora’s box that will wreak havoc on nature. Where do you stand on the debate?
In my plant breeding classes at NC State, in the 80s, the plant breeders were beside themselves with the potential of this new technology. Norman Borlaug dreamed of taking the rhizomes from legumes like soybeans and peanuts, which can take nitrogen from the atmosphere, and transfer them to grains like wheat, rice and maize, so that poor farmers around the world could grow these crops without heavy investment in nitrogen.
All these promises came out of this technology, but what did we get? We got two blockbuster traits: resistance to RoundUp herbicide, which the manufacturer, Monsanto, also makes; and the Bt transgene, a soil bacterium that will kill lepidopteran insects like corn rootworm or European corn borer, which are major agronomic pests.
The great fear that GMOs would cause catastrophic environmental or human health damages has not appeared. But neither have the great benefits.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the future? And what actions do we need to take to feed a projected nine billion people by 2050?
I am an optimist. The fact that we’ve got the pope talking about climate change or the US and China finally talking about reducing their emissions is a good thing. There are several other things we can do. We can close yield gaps around the world, from the former Soviet Union to Sub-Saharan Africa, where yields are a third to a quarter of those of the rest of the world. We can use our water supply better. We can produce more protein through aquaculture.
The lowest hanging fruit is to reduce demand. That means cutting out food-based biofuels, which would open up 10 percent of U.S. farmland and 15 percent of European arable land overnight. We could also eat lower on the food chain. We don’t need to eat nearly as much meat as we do; we would save an enormous amount of grain doing that.
Above all, we need to help countries still having six or seven children per woman make the demographic transition. If you educate women, through at least the sixth grade, and provide the same opportunities as men, you would start a Pink Revolution. This would solve the world’s food problem, by bringing down population rates and making half the world’s population more productive.