Food Fight

by Bill Chameides | February 19th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

Science magazine featured a cornucopia of papers on food last week, but it wasn’t a cookbook.

The highlight of the special issue was arguably a paper by H. Charles Godfray of the University of Oxford and colleagues entitled “Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People.”

A Menu of Ideas for Feeding Nine Billion

Currently numbering almost seven billion, we humans are headed for about nine billion by the middle of the century, according to demographers. A population of nine billion of course means feeding nine billion. Accomplishing such a feat while also raising the standards of living of people in the developing world will likely require an almost doubling of global food production.

Is that possible? There are lots of folks, including Toby Hemenway, a proponent of permaculture, and Roderick Nash, the guru of the wilding movement, who are convinced it’s not. Their prediction: we either take control of our population growth or allow Mother Nature to do it for us. They see humanity caught between two mutually exclusive imperatives: the need to exploit the environment to produce enough food and the need to limit exploitation of the environment to sustain the ecosystems services that farms require to be productive.

Godfray and colleagues see these two challenges as “the perfect storm.” And it’s a storm that is already brewing; they note that one in seven people in the world already lack access to sufficient protein and energy. But they are a bit more sanguine about weathering it, concluding that “the world can produce more food, and can ensure that it is used more efficiently and equitably. A multifaceted and linked global strategy is needed to ensure sustainable and equitable food security.” But it will require radical change soon.

Part of that strategy obviously includes increases in food production. To accomplish this, the authors suggest:

  • empowering farmers throughout the world to adopt site-specific best practices (they call this closing the yield gap) and
  • developing crops that are more efficient at converting sunlight into food. In their view genetic engineering will be a part of this.

Protecting the Environment While Balancing the World Diet

But the authors recognize that producing more crops is not the entire solution because of the challenge of sustainability: “increases in production … will be constrained as never before by the finite resources provided by the earth’s lands, oceans and atmosphere.” To balance these limitations, Godfray et al also call for radical changes in the way food is stored, processed, distributed, and accessed.

One promising avenue would address the 30–40 percent of the world’s food that never reaches a human mouth — because it’s wasted. Cut that waste and you can feed a lot more people. Other strategies include changing diets: eating less meat (but not necessarily eliminating it) and more grains and vegetables. Increasing reliance on aquaculture is another line of attack.

Godfray et al close their paper on a somber note:

“Any optimism must be tempered by the enormous challenges of making food production sustainable while controlling greenhouse gas emission and conserving dwindling water supplies, as well as … ending hunger. Moreover, we must avoid the temptation to sacrifice further the earth’s already hugely depleted biodiversity for easy gains in food production, not only because biodiversity provides many of the public goods upon which mankind relies, but also because we do not have the right to deprive future generations of its economic and cultural benefits.”

Forget the Shake — Other Sources of Protein to Feed the World Are Abundant

It appears that Godfray et al left at least one solution to our food problems out of their equation: insects. According to Paul Vantomme, senior forestry officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, who was quoted in another article in Science, “If you are going to feed 9 billion people, we cannot ignore the efficiency of insects as protein producers.”

One good source of protein, the article points out, may well be the mopane worm, an African caterpillar that is a “popular delicacy” whether “dried, stewed, smoked, or fried.” Apparently just three and a half ounces (100 grams to those on the metric system) of caterpillar meat is all you need to get the recommended daily amounts of protein, iron, B vitamins, and other essential nutrients. Yum.

Less Pain, More Gain?

Science was not the only publication with a food focus of late. This morning’s New York Times featured an op-ed by Adam Shriver, a doctoral student at Washington University, calling for an end to inflicting pain on the livestock we turn into dead stock en route to our dinner plates.

It appears that we will soon be able to genetically engineer animals that will not experience pain as an “unpleasant” sensation. We can raise them in horrible conditions, overfeed them with unhealthy food, and then slaughter them carelessly while the objects of our abuse feel just fine.

Hmmm. If you torture something but they don’t feel any pain, is it torture? I’m not sure. But I can tell you that I wish I’d a little of that genetic engineering the other night after I stuffed myself not with three ounces of mopane but with a 16-ounce New York strip, a baked potato, and four slices of bread (fully buttered). If I hadn’t been in so much pain from all that food, I could’ve had a 24-ounce one instead as well as a double helping of key lime pie. What the heck, why not a triple or even a quadruple helping? It kind of puts the lie to the expression “no pain, no gain.” Where are those genetic engineers when you need them?

filed under: animals, economy, ecosystems, energy, faculty, food
and: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


All comments are moderated and limited to 275 words. Your e-mail address is never displayed. Read our Comment Guidelines for more details.

  1. MattN
    Feb 19, 2010

    A warming planet will actually allow us to possibly feed 9 billion peeps. A cooling planet will not. If you want to feed that many people by 2050, you had better hope the predicted 20-30 years of cooling temps is wrong.

  2. Jim
    Feb 22, 2010

    We had a flank steak the other night, even though red meat is pretty rare for us. We’re only human. On another note, I remember your cash for crappers program. I met this guy Mitch at the home and garden show in Raleigh who invented a new flapper for toilets that significanlty reduces the amount of water it uses. Check it out at (when the web site is available).

©2015 Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University | Box 90328 | Durham, NC 27708
how to contact us > | login to the site > | site disclaimers >

footer nav stuff