Fighting Famine

The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World
By Joel K. Bourne Jr.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2015, 408 pages

As the world’s population continues to explode in the twenty-first century, humans are fast approaching a point of global food scarcity that is likely to trigger massive famines around the planet. The repercussions are terrifying, and likely include everything from mass migrations to wars.

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Joel Bourne delves into this all-too-possible dystopian future in his book The End of Plenty, starting with a deep dive into the historical context – humanity has, in fact, faced this crisis before. In the 1970s and 1980s, as unchecked population growth was set to exceed agricultural capacity, experts predicted famines unprecedented in modern times. What saved us was the Green Revolution – a number of early and mid-twentieth century technological advances in agriculture, including the development of new, higher yielding crops. These advances, as Bourne explains, led to huge increases in food production per acre and steep reductions in chronic malnourishment. The downside of the Green Revolution, as we now know, was that these new plants needed higher inputs of, water, chemical fertilizers and insecticides, which have had serious impacts on the biosphere.

In examining the complex history between humans, food, and famine, Bourne brings population alarmist Thomas Robert Malthus out of popular exile. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Malthus concluded that population would rapidly exceed agricultural production resulting in famine. He did not see the Green Revolution coming. Still, Bourne concludes that Malthus was basically right – we did not avert the famine menace with the Green Revolution; we simply postponed it.

Bourne also profiles the forgotten hero of the Green Revolution, scientist Norman Borlaug, who developed many of the seeds and techniques that fueled the agricultural revolution. But despite Borlaug’s success, Bourne is not as optimistic about our chances of a second Green Revolution given that the modern dilemma is wrought with new challenges.

Take the fact that, around the world, most good growing soils have already been cultivated, limiting options for agricultural expansion. Biofuel crops have begun usurping land previously used to grow food. Freshwater resources are being rapidly depleted. Above all of this looms human-caused climate change. And don’t forget, land must be preserved for other uses and values beyond agriculture, including biodiversity, watershed services, and timber production.

Acknowledging these issues, Bourne points out that “even the geopolitical and national security concerns that drove the first green revolution haven’t gone away, while the environmental damage to soil, water, forests, and climate has only grown more dire,” noting that “crop yields are now experiencing the classic pressure of diminishing returns that Malthus articulated two centuries ago and that Borlaug himself predicted, while demand for grain from population growth, meat-heavy diets, and biofuels is keeping food prices near record levels and spawning political instability in the poorest countries on the planet.”

After laying out these modern-day hurdles, the second half of the book is a search for answers in which Bourne examines everything from current trends in agriculture to recent technological advances. He chronicles new agricultural enterprises in the Ukraine, and contemplates efforts to farm the sea. He reports the rather startling fact that almost half of all seafood consumed today is raised in aquaculture, and notes the encouraging growth of organic agriculture in many countries. He also recounts revived efforts in plant genetics to increase crop yields while avoiding costly chemical inputs.

Perhaps in an effort to lift the reader’s spirit, Bourne cites one particularly hopeful study estimating that if the developed world could halve meat consumption, improve animal and crop waste recycling, and use bioenergy crops more efficiently, we could feed 9.3 billion people by 2050. He also addresses the population problem, urging developed nations to make family-planning services freely available to developing nations.

Bourne concludes his musings on our food crisis during a visit to Bath, England, where Malthus is buried. “Malthus’s basic challenge to the world remains,” he writes. “We are locked in a never-ending two-step between our numbers and the sustenance we can wrest from [six] inches of topsoil.” But all is not lost. We can still, Bourne believes, through innovation and changed habits, solve our current food crisis. Indeed, we must innovate and change, or suffer the fate of past civilizations that failed to address looming confrontations between climate, soil, plants, and people.

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