‘Humanity’s gamble’ of feeding growing populations

Biologist Paul Ehrlich warned that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation in his landmark 1968 book, The Population Bomb.

More than 45 years later, Ehrlich and other experts repeated the warning with increased urgency as climate change escalates threats to food production. Ehrlich calls for increased empowerment and education for women, giving them the ability to choose smaller families and control population, as one solution.

More than 840 million people are undernourished, and this number will grow if the current food system does not change, panelists said at the AAAS annual meeting Sunday. Infographic courtesy of Food and Agriculture Organization/United Nations.
More than 840 million people are undernourished, and this number will grow if the current food system does not change, panelists said at the AAAS annual meeting Sunday. Infographic courtesy of Food and Agriculture Organization/United Nations.

The current food system and climate changes create an unsustainable situation for a planet expected to hold more than 9 billion people by 2050, said the panelists, speaking Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

“We’re gambling that were going to be able to continue increasing crop yield,” Ehrlich said,  calling the problem “humanity’s gamble.”

“We’re betting that we’re going to be able to continue feeding people fishes from the sea, and from agriculture.”

He cited a flawed industrial food production system, soil destruction, and climate change as serious impediments to feeding the planet. World population had topped 3.5 billion in 1968 when Ehrlich, of Stanford University,  published his book.

Kimberly Carlson, from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment in St. Paul, said that during the past 50 years, population has more than doubled while food consumption and water use have tripled.

Regarding food production as feed for animals, she said, “The cow is really the elephant in the room in this case,” because cows convert only 3 percent of calories consumed into edible meat. Animals in general are bad at converting calories to food, and Carlson said people should rethink how much meat they eat because it is not energy efficient to produce.

Thomas Karl, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in Asheville, N.C., warned that changes in the amount of precipitation are not as concerning as the rising frequency of intense rainfalls, which contribute to soil erosion.

Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 book, The Population Bomb, called the current food system "humanity's gamble" in feeding growing populations at the AAAS annual meeting Sunday.
Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 book, The Population Bomb, called the current food system “humanity’s gamble” in feeding growing populations at the AAAS annual meeting Sunday.

Despite an increase in severe rainfalls, drought remains a serious problem.

“Drought is our major culprit in losses of grain production,” said Felix Kogan, from the NOAA in College Park, Md. He said grain supply fell below demand eight times already in the 21st century. However, he added that technology is improving farmers’ ability to predict droughts a month or two in advance.

With the enormous challenges in place, Ehrlich’s prediction for whether farmers, scientists and industries can successfully combat them is both bleak and encouraging.

“There’s not much sign that we’re gonna do it,” he said. “There are cheery signs that we could do it.”