Food systems are going to be of primary importance as population peaks. If, as the UN says, population will reach more than 9 billion in the 2040’s before beginning a steep decline, the causes of that decline are important to consider today. A historical review of population reductions shows that neither war nor the natural disasters we’ve seen so far make a noticeable difference, but suggests that famine and possibly disease have the potential to make major reductions in the population. Decades ago I expected that we might pollute our world so badly that average lifespans would fall, but there has been some progress on preserving the environment and it appears that energy and food shortages created by overpopulation are bigger concerns. (Of course, the primary concern SHOULD be overpopulation itself, as these other problems are results of it.) If organic food and farming methods are more costly than agribusiness’ methods now, why would they replace the hugely productive methods used to produce most food in the developed world today?
Agriculture must shed it’s fossil fuel-based systems. Even the most optimistic estimates suggest that, in our petroleum-based system, increasing cost of fossil fuels will make oil derivatives such as fertilizer, diesel fuel, most plastics, and gasoline prohibitively expensive mid-century and beyond, and there is every reason to expect this to play an important role in the decline of the human population. This suggests that organic farming will become less expensive than our current methods well before the population peaks.
The media continues to fail when it comes to overpopulation and its results. Unfortunately our corporate-owned media often mis-report the news, making me wonder if this isn’t sometimes based on a corporate agenda, and did so glaringly on a recent study that said organic food is no more nutritious than other food. For a revealing take on this study and a better explanation of why organic methods will prevail I refer you to “Only Organics Can Feed the Hungry World: Here’s Why” by Richard Schiffman. He makes the compelling argument that, without fossil fuel, we will be forced back to sustainable, organic farming methods, and points out that some small farmers are already making the change, but using modern tools.
Is big agribusiness on board yet? I doubt it, or at least they’re not taking serious action. It would seem that the corporate form encourages only short-term thinking, so I initially expect to see Big Agro pursue only defensive actions to protect products like RoundUp and the genetically modified crops used to bolster its sales.
The economies of food may change in ways that work against the current agribusiness model. I try to imagine the huge changes to come in the global economy, and the impact of such changes on multinational corporations. Some of them will see the foundations of their businesses vanish in very short times during the next century. If transportation costs rise significantly it will put the cost advantage back in local food production, distribution, and consumption, for example. While some mass production systems will remain, the last commodities to be handled this way will have to be of high enough value to counter the high transportation and distribution costs. This could shake the foundations of the traditional food giants and even their suppliers. For instance, Monsanto’s market for fertilizer could be greatly reduced as General Foods finds its sales in some agricultural commodities falling rapidly, either because of supply problems or the relative lowering of the cost of local foods, illustrating the ripple effects of high energy prices and the adoption of localized food systems. Most companies will be forced to commit far greater resources to research and development, and will pressure governments to fund such research. The smarter organizations will adapt and produce new, more economical and ecologically responsible products and methods while the more conservative ones will see declines that could threaten their existence. The need to innovate rapidly will be recognized and addressed by the survivors, and new waves of research funding will fuel the labs of academia, possibly paid for in advance by commercial organizations. The result will be a continuance of the pell mell nature of change in our lives.
The pace of change in technology will continue to accelerate as people, corporations, and governments struggle to invent ways out of our predicament, but nothing will make much difference unless it changes the ways of life of billions, not just millions. Fundamental change must occur, but fortunately we already have the advantage of a global communication system that reaches the majority of the human population, and which can spread new ideas.
The strength of humanity is our adaptability. The pace of change will also accelerate as energy and food shortages increase, economies at every scale become more volatile, and we are pressed to be more resourceful at every level of human organization. The pace of invention could slow, however, if resources for research and development become more scarce. Hopefully the value and necessity of human invention will continue to be recognized and supported, and we will keep enough infrastructure and manufacturing capability to quickly and widely spread new technologies as they become available.
The massive adjustments we face will challenge us at every level. It is probable that times will get tougher and our situation as a species and planet will become far more challenging before fundamental measures such as average life expectancy, expected to fall after mid-century, turn around and get better again. We need to publicly discuss the challenges ahead from the standpoint of the population explosion and move beyond trying to address the symptoms, such as pollution, immigration, food shortages, and climate change. We also need to consistently demand that our media and politicians start discussing the population explosion as a fundamental problem to be addressed.
The population explosion is not an insurmountable problem. Declines in birthrates have been achieved before by government action, and can be again (and not just by draconian “one child” laws). The challenge is to produce them on a global scale and, for that, broad agreements between governments and other organizations will be required, enabled by major shifts in how we understand and view our world. The media and politicians must play a major role in the shift, however, and we all need to ask them for the needed changes. If we humans don’t take charge of our future and stop our runaway population growth we will prove ourselves little better than apes, and we will suffer massive and terrible calamities. I think we’d all like to avoid that.
As always, I welcome your comments, and thanks for reading. — Tim