As the world counts down to the landmark of seven billion people on the planet (a scary number predicted to happen – perhaps a little too conveniently? – on the scary day of Halloween, 31 October) we are seeing an increasing number of stories and statistics on whether the Earth's resources can cope with a population predicted to carry on increasing for the foreseeable future. The population increase has been a feature in agricultural conferences over the last weeks, and in press releases for CropWorld Global 2011, a conference set to open in London on 31 October, the day already mentioned as when our population may be officially declared to be seven billion.
Among the statistics presented by Dominic Dyer, UK Crop Protection Association chief executive, in a speech on 21 Ocotober to AgChem Asia Summit in Shanghai, China, was a figure that the amount of farmland available to feed each person on the planet has fallen from 0.5 hectares in 1950 to 0.2 hectares today. Clearly, in order to sustain a growing population on a finite amount of land (and land subject in many regions to problems of desertification, erosion and salinization) we need to maximise efficiency and reduce losses: in the strapline of CABI's Plantwise initiative, 'lose less and grow more'.
That means reducing crop losses: Dominic Dyer says that "Without effective tools to protect crops against yield losses caused by weeds, pests and diseases, global food production would fall by 40%". It also means using key resources such as water efficiently. Agriculture consumes 70% of the world's water, and a World Economic Forum report in 2010 said that analysis suggests that the world will face a 40 per cent global shortfall between forecast water demand and available supply by 2030. The International Water Management Institute predicts that by 2025 about 1.8 billion people will live in places suffering from severe water scarcity.
"There's quite a bit of land that could produce food if we had the water to go with it," says Lester Brown, the environmental analyst who heads the Earth Policy Institute in Washington said. "It's water that's becoming the real constraint."
But is the water situation really that gloomy? Not according to research by the CGIAR Challenge Program of Water and Food (CPWF), a major initiative aiming to improve water management for food production (crops, fisheries and livestock). Findings from the CPWF released at the World Water Congress in September say that "there is clearly sufficient water to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century". The research detailed in two special issues of the journal Water International says that the "sleeping giant" of water challenges is not scarcity, but the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of the massive amounts of water that flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins such as the Nile, Ganges, Andes, Yellow, Niger and Volta.
"Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today," said Alain Vidal, director of the CPWF. "Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern."
"Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used," he added, "particularly in the rain-fed regions of sub-Saharan Africa. With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region where population pressures arouse the greatest concern, with growth figures there far more rapid than in other regions of the globe. A UN report on population just released says that sub-Saharan Africa is "the one remaining region of the world where the population is set to double or treble in the next 40 years." But the CPWF researchers say that if donors and government ministries put more emphasis on supporting rain-fed agriculture, food production here can increase substantially and rapidly. In Africa, it was found that the vast majority of cropland is rainfed and researchers found that only about four percent of available water is captured for crops and livestock.
"With a major push to intensify rainfed agriculture, we could feed the world without increasing the strain on river basins systems," said Dr. Simon Cook, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Leader of the CPWF's Basin Focal Research Project (BFRP).
Population growth of course produces huge challenges: the UN report quotes figures that the natural resources we now consume in a year take the Earth 18 months to regenerate. But as has been covered in previous blog articles on Hand Picked, the main concern for food and hunger is not so much that we can't produce enough, but that we do it in inefficient ways, lose too much between field and table, and don't have an economic system that enables the world's poor to have a more equitable share of food and other resources.
More food for thought to conclude this article: there are some 916 million undernourished people in the world according to the latest statistics, and over 1.5 billion who are overweight.
To keep track of the countdown to seven billion, take a look at Worldometers.info, where you can see the estimated population change by the second. For the background information and reports referred to in this article, see the links below.