In 2050, what will the privileged few be prepared to do to share the earth’s output of food with the rest of us?
It was a line casually tossed off, buried in the Travel section of the Sunday Times. A piece about the U.S. pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo. Dorothy Cann Hamilton, who heads the U.S. exhibit, says “The Expo organizers have posed the question of how we will feed nine billion people in 2050. If we continue to eat and farm the way we do, there will not be enough food to feed the planet by then.”
Oh, fuss and bother. That’s 35 years from now, who has time to worry about such an idea. For now, let’s sink our teeth into the American offerings: lobster rolls and barbecue, artisanal craft beers, pappardelle with lamb ragu, tamale fries made from masa, pastrami fried chicken. These are the delights Ms. Hamilton extolls as she talks about the Expo and the U.S. bill of fare.
“If we continue to eat and farm the way we do.” How does that square with the American menu?
Well, here’s the cost, in land, water and animals and impact.
Lobster rolls depend on a steady supply of the best of the beast – Maine lobsters, not the spiny rock lobsters that restaurant chains are starting to farm to shore up the supply. Maine lobsters face a warming ocean, and although there have been recent surges in available stocks, lobstermen report having to travel farther to trap them. What has shrunk is the population of lobstermen. Fewer fisherman going farther to catch lobsters seems a lot like the old ways.
Barbecue? It takes 1300 lbs. of feed (almost all grain) to produce 360 lbs. of pig meat. Globally we raise and slaughter more than a billion pigs a year. Half of them are raised in “intensive” systems. Can we sustain this way of farming pigs? Probably. Should we? Probably not.
According to Lane Burt, energy efficiency expert, it takes about as much energy to produce a six-pack of beer as it does to run a 40-inch TV for 20 hours. As long as we can continue to produce amber waves of grain we can keep making pasta (pappardelle) – how long do we think that will be? We are probably losing topsoil at a rate many, many times greater than the rate we are creating it.
Lamb for ragu? We probably have to import it. Our own sheep production doesn’t do the job, and half of what we eat we bring in from overseas. Transportation costs, energy costs, huge expanses of grassland given over to sheep. Masa fries depend on corn, lots and lots of corn. I don’t know what could possibly be wrong with pastrami fried chicken except the disappearance of small-farm chicken husbandry, the looming machinery of big Tyson factories, the “oops” of bird flu affecting millions of chickens and causing them to be suffocated as a preventive measure.
The menu offerings at the U.S. pavilion do not appear to reflect much concern for the warning that we cannot “eat and farm the way we do.” They seem, instead, to be indulgences and extravagances based on a notion of never-ending bounty.
So how should we plan to feed nine billion people? For starters, we’ll need to practice better horticulture and do it on a grand scale. We’ll need to learn how to harvest seaweed and algae and turn them into food. We’ll need to manage our water and soil more efficiently and effectively.
And if we’re humane and community-minded in our search for solutions, we’ll have to acknowledge that some regions of the world will be in much worse shape than others – requiring resource sharing, technology transfer, seed distribution and more, on a scale we haven’t yet attempted.
Of course, we could make our food go farther if there weren’t nine billion of us by 2050. How about a bold and catalytic declaration by the Pope and other spiritual leaders that world population is contributing to global warming and food shortages and that it’s time to practice birth control?
Where’s the candidate who proposes to double or triple our support for population control in those places where it is needed, wanted, critical? I’d be glad to see a public health campaign dedicated to the benefits of alternative sources of protein and nutrition.
How about a moratorium on cooking shows, cooking channels, cooking derbies, all the entertainment that pretends the world’s a kitchen stadium with freezers and pantries brimming with bounty. Instead, how about a show that features innovative ways to cook nontraditional and sustainable ingredients.
All of which begs the question: what are the privileged few among us prepared to do to share the earth’s output with the rest of us?