More Mouths More Problems – Or how to feed a growing population

The population on Earth is rapidly growing, and so is the amount of mouths to feed. Current methods of farming and food distribution are not effectively able to feed every person on Earth, and as a consequence, an alarming number of people starve every single day – a number which will only increase in the future.
The essential problem however, is not that we aren’t able to grow enough food to feed everyone – because we are.

The problem is that not everyone has the resources in terms of money or land to buy or grow a sufficient amount of food, to fulfill their needs. The fact that the population is growing faster in the developing world, than in the developed world – as illustrated below – only compounds the problem.

The problem is compounded because feeding people in the developing countries is the essence of the problem.

The industrialized world has too much food, and the developing world doesn’t have enough – no news there.

The good news is that solutions are being developed to solve this very pressing problem – economically as well scientifically – but it is going to be a race against time, nature, and socioeconomic norms to win the war with hunger.

Present Day

The current world population is currently 7.4 billion people (honestly this link is pretty cool), the top 3 countries being China, India and the USA. This number grows by 75 million people per year, and at current growth rates the total is projected to be 9.7 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100.

World hunger is already a major issue, and one which we will continue to face in the foreseeable future. Currently, 1 in 8 people worldwide suffer from hunger. The number of hungry people worldwide exceeds the populations of the U.S., Canada and the European Union combined.

More people get fat – More people starve

The above sentence doesn’t really compute does it? Why is it, that in some parts of the world we have so much food that we are overweight, and even eat ourselves to death. In 2014 39% of adults were overweight, and 13% were obese – meaning that they are so overweight that they are actually in physical danger. Like this woman.

This is thought-provoking given that almost 11% of the world is under-nourished.

On top of that we have another issue entirely, which is food waste,. It is thought-provoking that a whopping 33% of all food today goes to waste, which is a mind-blowing statistic. I’m literally shaking my head as I’m writing this. Thirty. Three. Percent. Of all food in the world is wasted. That is an insane number.

This amounts to a total of 1.3 billion tons of food being thrown away each year; this is enough to feed 3 billion people.

On top of that we actually produce more food per capita than we could ever need. To be specific 2790 kilocalories of food is produced per day for every person on the planet; only around 2000 are eaten. Men need around 2,500 kcal per day to thrive, and women need around 2,000. Clearly, there is currently enough food produced to make every human on Earth fat. So why is it that world hunger could ever be an issue?

Flaws in the system –  The economics of hunger

Hunger is an inevitable consequence of the economic systems currently in place, which have been shown to lack ecological integrity. Put simply, food manufacturers charge a price for the goods and services, and there is not currently a global initiative to give all the excess food away for free, (or selling it at break-even which would still help tons), instead of just throwing it away. The capitalistic nature of World Trade demands that a profit be made from the sale of goods in order to benefit stockholders, and that which is not sold is disposed of. We currently operate under a system of industrial agriculture; this leads to the uneven distribution of food, with little-to-no room for wide-scale charitable donations to occur.

Delving into the details of exchange reveals some interesting trends. As it turns out, foreign investors are aggravating the food price situation by placing orders on U.S. grain exchanges that are too large in an effort to prevent having to pay too much if and when the price of wheat goes up in the near future. Food prices have already begun to take their toll in relation to world hunger. Between 2005 and 2008, food prices rose by about 80%. This price is absorbed mostly by distributors and processors, but is also somewhat absorbed by consumers.

Basically, rising food costs are making it impossible for some people or even entire countries to purchase enough food to feed everyone. While food prices may fluctuate, they are not expected to ever come down from the price they hit in 2006, which ultimately results in a permanent increase of at least 45% in all food prices globally. Not a good trend, if you’re struggling to feed yourself to begin with.

Food prices can go up for reasons such as massive droughts and other weather conditions which render farming impossible for any length of time.  Subsidies designed to protect farmers from this sort of unlucky occurrence only further distort the actual price of food globally, and prevent the market from being able to place normal price adjustments on food. A reliance on fossil fuels does not help matters, as this contributes to high costs of the transport required to move the food around the planet.

The environmental impact of agriculture

The meat concern

Meat consumption is a big obstacle in food production. It takes much more land to support meat production than it does to produce vegetables of the same quantity. Furthermore, meat production results in much more pollution than the farming required for produce.

Usually, we like cows. They taste nice, and on top of that, they’re also pretty cute. Like this guy.

However, cows produce a lot of methane, which negatively impacts air quality (specifically, the ozone layer). Animal production accounts for 15-18% of the world’s air pollution – that is even more than all of the world’s transportation. Runoff from rain hitting animal waste and washing it into rivers and oceans also accounts for a significant amount of the world’s water pollution.

As for water, it takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of beef; comparatively, 1 pound of tofu requires only 244 gallons of water to produce. Just one person assuming a vegetarian diet can save approximately 219,000 gallons of water a year.

Land use is another issue; it takes 20 times more land to support meat as it does to support the same amount (in pounds) of vegetables. More than ninety percent of all Amazon rainforest destruction has been performed for grazing livestock. Once the agriculture exhausts the land, the land becomes arid and turns into desert in a process known as desertification. This is anything but promising for a world in need of more food in the coming centuries.

It is plain to see that if we want to support a growing population in the future, it is worth considering how much easier it will be if humans worldwide consider eating less meat. However, seeing as most people are not too excited about giving up – or even cutting back on – bacon, burgers and the like it’s worth thinking in alternative solutions. So what’s the current state of affairs?

Agriculture Today

Unsustainable farming practices have a number of negative environmental impacts, including land use, water use, land destruction, and flooding.

Agriculture uses a huge amount of land. Approximately 50% of the world’s land has been converted to farming land so far. By 2050, it is estimated that a further 120 million hectares of natural habitats will be converted to farmland to meet food demands.

Agriculture consumes around 70 percent of Earth’s available freshwater. We still need to keep in mind that a growing issue worldwide is the availability of fresh drinking water; not only will more water be required to farm going forward, but a booming population is also going to require more water just for drinking purposes.

Agriculture also accounts for a lot of land degradation. Currently, about 30 percent of the total global land area has succumbed to degradation. This increases at a rate of approximately 10 million hectares per year. This mean less land will be had for more farming. The more farming we do, the less land we have over time to farm on. This is a paradoxical problem, that we need to solve sooner rather than later.

In addition to land degradation, and because of it, more flooding occurs. This causes land to no longer be arable.

Thankfully, the last 5 decades have shown increases in agricultural productivity which have rendered it possible to produce more crops on the same amount of land.

Agriculture in the future

Meat Made from Stem Cells

As discussed, the agricultural resources required for meat production take up a lot of land without feeding nearly as many people as the same amount of plant-based food sources. But seeing as one would be hard pressed to expect the entire planet to conform to a vegetarian diet any time soon, scientists have gotten innovative in their proposed solutions.

Producing meat from stemcells involves no farming, and almost no animals; it simply uses cells harmlessly biopsied from animals to grow flesh in laboratories from stem cells and produce meat. Developers expect this product to hit public shelves as soon as 2020. This lab-produced meat was taste tested and confirmed to be as good as conventionally sourced meat, and is expected to have similar purchase prices as well. In case you’re curious, it looks like this.

Floating Farms

Take a look at this futuristic triple-layer farm.

Such, farms which would float on the sea, would be almost completely self-sustaining. They would have fish farms on the bottom level, hydroponic (indoor) gardens in the middle, and solar panels on the roof. Hydroponics, desalination, greenhouses and photovoltaic power would all be regularly occurring processes contributing to the self-sufficient operational aspect of these farms. They would essentially free up all the space on land which is currently used for agriculture – roughly half of all the land on earth.

It has been estimated that these farms can produce over 8,000 tons of vegetables and over 1,700 tons of fish per year. Each farm can be stacked in different ways to accommodate the needs of the location or population it serves.

The top level would include rainwater collection systems for irrigation, photovoltaic panels to provide electricity, and skylight openings for natural light. Other modifications can include micro wind turbines and wave energy converter systems.

The second layer would have a greenhouse and hydroponic system in place, which would allow for year-round crop growth despite weather conditions. Because it does not require natural rainwater or fertile land to grow crops, people in all different environments (such as desert environments) can use them to grow food.

The bottom layer would be for fish farming. Cage fishing would be in place, using the seawater. There could also be a hatchery included for incubating and hatching dish.

These floating farms would improve the quality of not only the environment, but human life overall. They would provide space-saving, profit-generating ways to grow crops and feed local populations.  More people are moving to cities and away from farms; these floating farms would play a significant role

With more people moving away from farms and into cities, advancements in urban agriculture is more important than ever. They can be adapted to local food production needs, and can be located near many cities or densely populated areas, as long as they have access to water. These farms would reduce reliance on imported food and would make great use of the virtually untouched vast expanse of ocean water we have on Earth.

Needless to say, this presents a significant improvement over the way we farm today.

Vertical Farming

Around 80 percent of the Earth’s population will reside in urban centers by the year 2050.

By that time, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people. In order to grow enough food to feed that population, an estimated 1 billion hectares of new land will be required to grow enough food to feed everyone, given today’s farming methods. Today, about 80 percent of the land suitable for farming is in use. About 15 percent of it has been ruined by flawed agricultural practices. If we are to have enough land to produce enough food to feed such a large population, vertical farms is another possible solution.

One really cool looking artistic rendition of what a vertical farm could look like is this:

Vertical farms will use a technology called aeroponics, in which crops are grown in vertical stacks of beds. They will not even require soil, sunlight, or water. The design seeks to minimize environmental damage while admittedly divorcing food production from the natural agricultural ecosystem. This is an ideal design for what will essentially be indoor farms in city environments. Fields go from sprawling outside concepts to condensed indoor concepts. In essence, farming will require much less space on Earth to produce crops.

In addition to space saving benefits, developers of the proposed vertical farms estimate that the crop yields will be as much as 70 times greater than those of traditional field farms.

Water Omniprocessors

There is a mechanism in place which turns sewage water into drinking water. This would help convert much unusable water into the fresh water needed not only for drinking, but for agriculture and other vital processes as well. This process, called omniprocessing, converts human waste into electricity and drinkable water. Currently, about 700,000 children die every year from poor sanitation related illness; omniprocessing would render that statistic drastically reduced.

The Grand Scheme

Only time will tell which combination of these solutions mankind might use to feed the increasing number of mouths in the years and centuries to come. These are just a few ideas which are currently in development, but they do hold significant promise.

A few things are certain. We have a limited amount of land on Earth with which to farm. So, solutions must take that into consideration and strive to bring farming from land, to the unused spaces such as oceans and skies. It is also certain that we currently produce more food than is necessary to feed every human on the planet, yet billions of people are still starving.

The scientific farming and water processing solutions will not be enough. Population control and economic reforms will have to occur in conjunction, to ensure that there are manageable numbers of people in each region, and that the food that is being produced is being fairly distributed. Additional efforts will also have to be made to drastically reduce the amount of food which is wasted after production.

Humans will have to face the difficult choice of changing centuries-old farming practices and bringing those concepts into buildings and in other unconventional spaces. But we will also have to face the seemingly impossible choice of changing the very way we think about life on this planet. Concepts such as increased birth control and international trade reform are not easy to consider, and will not occur overnight.

Eventually humanity will have to face these difficult dilemmas and decide which sacrifices are necessary if everybody wishes to have food on the table.

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