Global Famine – Sustainable Food Production
“Coming Famine” is a discussion paper declaring the need for huge increases in the world’s food production, to avert the real prospect of a famine of global proportions (Cribb 2007). The main body of the paper describes the numerous indicators that point towards a famine. One possibility to offset those negative predictions is the development and wider use of genetically-modified crops that allow more food to be grown on the same areas of land. “Genetically modified organisms” (Millis 2006) provides some useful information in that regard. My paper also examines articles, reports and views on needed actions from other sources, with the ultimate purpose of assessing the usefulness of that Cribb discussion paper.
The Cribb Paper
Cribb begins with a graph predicting a rise from the 1960 world population level of 3 billion to over 9 billion by 2050 (Cribb 2007, 2). However, he claims that as a result of economic growth, those 9.3 billion will consume food equivalent to 13 billion measured at the currently prevailing nutritional levels. He reports that the UN Environment program states that world food production must increase in the next forty years by 110 percent to satisfy that demand, and quotes respected sources who see that increase as technically achievable if the majority of countries have farming systems of an advanced nature (Cribb 2007, 2). However, at this point in his discussion paper, Cribb expands on what he sees as the obstacles in the way of meeting that global food production objective. Of them all, he claims that only one has any degree of uncertainty; that is the effect of climate change (Cribb 2007, 2-3). He first points to a likely water shortage, noting that the water available to farmers by 2050 will have decreased by over 30 percent due to increased urban demand, and that the amount of groundwater to irrigate food crops is rapidly decreasing. In summary, Cribb states that according to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) a general scarcity of water may by 2025 result in a yearly food loss of circa 350 million tonnes, equivalent to the world’s rice harvest or the United States’ grain crop. So – according to Cribb – farmers must produce twice as much food, yet using a third less water, an effective increase of water usage efficiency of 200 percent. Or, all farmers must grow crops that need only natural rainfall for a successful harvest. He also states that by 2050, about 50 percent of us can expect regular droughts (Cribb 2007, 3 and 4).
The second key factor that might prevent increasing food harvests is soil degradation. Cribb indicates that around 10 percent of the world’s arable land is seriously degraded, of which about a quarter is unusable, and that most of the remainder is at least partially degraded (Cribb 2007, 4).
The paper claims that the increasing production of biofuels is adding further pressure on achievable food crop targets and food prices. Using land to grow crops for biofuels clearly means less land available for food production. By 2020 circa 400 million tonnes of grain – equivalent to the global rice harvest – will be grown for biofuels (Cribb 2007, 4).
Another negative factor identified is that while our seas are over-fished, seafood is in high demand. As the seas become less productive, the demand for meat (and for grain to feed livestock) is increasing, applying more pressure on farmland (Cribb 2007, 5). Farmers apply millions of tonnes of fertilizer to increase soil nutrient levels, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) believes that applied nutrients may be replacing only circa 15 percent of natural losses (Cribb 2007, 5).
The paper refers to the “knowledge drought”, a global decline in agricultural research and development that will retard any worldwide productivity increase in farming, which will in turn mean less new technology made available to developing countries (Cribb 2007, 6). Returning to the subject of climate change, Cribb reports that the Consultative Group on International Climate Research (CGIAR) forecasts that by 2050, Asian wheat production will be down by 50 percent. Other parts of the world will also be affected in a similar manner (Cribb 2007, 6).
Summarizing Cribb’s predictions, he sees the combined challenge as: “the world must raise food production 110 per cent – off a smaller and more degraded soils base, and with only two thirds the water, costlier and scarcer nutrients, using less research and threatened by climate change.” He mentions a growing refugee problem that means that unless we can achieve “global food stability” refugees could number “hundreds of millions” affecting all nations (Cribb 2007, 8).
Concluding his paper, Cribb offers a list of actions required to counter those problems, and thus to resolve the expected food shortages (Cribb 2007, 9 and 10). His list (abbreviated) is paraphrased below:
1. Investment in agricultural R&D focusing on exploiting soil development to increase harvests, better water efficiency, new crops, polycultures and mixed farming systems, and farming using acid-tolerant methods.
2. Accelerate making new technology more widely available for farmers, particularly in developing countries.
3. Peacefully reduce world population by two to three billion by the year 2100.
4. Eliminate nutrient waste. Recycle all waste everywhere.
5. Develop low cost “green foods”, e.g. algae cultures.
6. Develop “green cities”: Grow crops on roofs, waste areas, etc. Reuse waste water.
7. Develop converters to produce carbohydrates from CO2 and hydrocarbons.
8. Encourage low-protein and vegetarian diets with minimum culinary input.
9. Use scientific techniques to increase food production in spite of climate change, to overcome problems of droughts, etc.
10. Adopt an integrated regional resource management approach, to avoid conflicts with other activities and to increase sustainability.
11. Bring an end to wild harvesting for gain, including forestry and fishing.
12. Increase global recording and storing genetic details of foods, plants & animals.
The Millis Paper
Millis published her paper: “Genetically modified organisms” which explains how DNA from a plant can be introduced into a host plant, producing a genetically modified (GM) host known as a “genetically modified organism”, or GMO, containing a desired characteristic that could not have been obtained by traditional methods (Millis 2006, par 1). The paper reports that by 2004, millions of farmers in 17 different countries were growing GM crops (Millis 2006, par 2). Concerns about potential risks to human health and/or the environment mean tight control in growing these crops and for the most part (in Australia) it is restricted to trial fields in dedicated locations to minimize risks including cross-pollination with a nearby non-GM crop or with a weed variety that may then acquire the herbicide-resistant property of the GM crop (Millis 2006, pars 3-13).
The paper points out that gene technology allows plant breeders to obtain varieties that are both useful and otherwise unobtainable, albeit with some degree of safety concerns that must be scrutinized with care. However, the GM crops offer benefits including resistance to herbicides ( less cultivation and weed growth), resistance to drought and to high salt levels, and even the possibility of producing vitamins not present in the unmodified host (such as Vitamin A introduced into rice) (Millis 2006, pars 14-15).
Other Reports and Views on the Subject of Impending Global Famine
Immediate Action Needed to Prevent Sahel Famine
This report posted by Liz Ford (February 15, 2012) covers a World Food Programme (WFP) meeting in Rome, to agree a joint response to food shortages and drought in the Sahel region of Africa possibly becoming a famine. Ford reports that due to erratic rains in recent years, harvests have fallen dramatically, causing widespread malnutrition in the region (Ford 2012, par 6).
Famine in Somalia: Causes and Solutions
This undated Oxfam article defines famine as a three-fold failure of “(1) food production, (2) people’s ability to access food and, finally and most crucially (3) in the political response by governments and international donors” (Famine in Somalia: Causes and Solutions n.d., par 2). It describes the causes of the famine (par 6) and what must be done. The solutions (par 9) include increasing food production, improving peoples’ access to food by improving infrastructure, and deriving better response solutions if and when famine occurs.
Big food push urged to avoid global hunger
Richard Black, BBC News environment correspondent, posted this article on March 25, 2010. He refers to a report issued for the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development, which states that major development of agriculture in the world’s poorest nations is urgently needed in order to double food production by the year 2050 (Black 2010, pars 1-7). The article mentioned the possibility of increasing African maize crops by five times given the right techniques (Black 2010, par 17). It also referred to the “GM” rice (with Vitamin A added) being now in pre-commercial trials, and that in China there are as many as 30 varieties of GM plants almost ready for the commercial market (Black 2010, par 24).
This article posted June 13, 2012 on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) website, describes the programme at this Rio conference focused on the green economy, to reinforce the future of ecologically-based food supply security. Topics of papers to be presented at the conference include eradication of poverty in the developing countries, measures to eradicate degradation of the environment, policies and practices for sustainable water management, and more (From Green Economy for Business to Preventing Future Famine 2012).
Famine We Could Avoid
John Vidal posted this article on the Our World / United Nations University website on July 22, 2011. It describes how the progressively more frequent droughts in that part of Africa have meant that the population of 10 million survives mostly through feeding programmes (Vidal 2011, par 3).
The article claims that the nomadic way of life of these peoples is being destroyed, partly by their governments expanding national parks, creating game reserves and establishing large-scale farms (Vidal 2011, par 7), and that the longer-term remedy is to fund pumps and new boreholes, help them with education, improved vaccination of their cattle, and the means to store and transport food (Vidal 2011, par 9).
Cribb’s discussion paper paints a fairly gloomy picture (Cribb 2007). Taking together all the problems he describes, representing between them a major obstacle to achieving what he estimates as the needed increase in global food production by 2050, it really does look most unlikely that the declared goal of a 110 percent increase by then can be realized. He has provided “solid” references for several of his statistics and predictions, which suggest they are in general valid, although this researcher cannot be certain that he has not (for example) taken a view towards the more negative end of a range of available views. Also, there may be other factors that he hasn’t mentioned or taken into account that would make the increased food production target seem more achievable.
Both the paper by Professor Millis (Millis 2006) and the Richard Black article (Black 2010) suggest that GMO’s may, by the time the year 2050 comes along, represent a significant positive factor in the quest for the necessary huge increases in global food production.
Other articles and papers reviewed and referenced in this paper seem in general to align with at least some of Cribb’s views of the current situation, its causes, and actions needed to prevent a disastrous global famine in the future.
In summary, I believe that Cribb’s paper, although mostly negative and presenting an outlook almost without hope and one that offers little prospect of feeding the world’s inflated population in four decades time, nonetheless is useful in that it does provide the reader with a timely “wake-up call” (Cribb 2007). There is a suspicion that his paper may have an overly pessimistic bias, and that it may be that there is actually a better chance of avoiding global famine than he suggests. However, his paper (as well as others) has the effect of rightly reminding us that doing nothing is simply not an option if we are to find a solution in time.
Black, Richard. “Big food push urged to avoid global hunger”. BBC News. (March 25, 2010). http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8585504.stm
Cribb, Julian. “Coming Famine.” Australian Science Media Centre. (2007). 1-11. http://www.aussmc.org/documents/Worldfood2050.pdf
“Famine in Somalia: causes and solutions”. Oxfam International. http://www.oxfam.org/en/emergencies/east-africa-food-crisis/famine-somalia-what-needs-be-done (accessed August 13, 2012).
Ford, Liz. “Immediate action needed to prevent Sahel famine, says WFP.” the guardian: global development. (February 15, 2012). http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/feb/15/wfp-action-prevent-sahel-famine
“From Green Economy for Business to Preventing Future Famine”. UNEP News Centre.
(June 13, 2012). http://www.unep.org/newscentre/Default.aspx?DocumentID=2688&ArticleID=9167&l=en
Millis, Nancy. “Genetically modified organisms”. Australian Government: State of the Environment 2006. (2006). http://www.environment.gov.au/soe/2006/publications/emerging/gmo/index.html
Vidal, John. “Famine we could avoid”. Our World 2.0 / United Nations University. (July 22, 2011). http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/famine-we-could-avoid/