Geopolitics

How On Earth Are We Going To Feed 11 Billion People?

In a famine-plagued region of Ethiopia
In a famine-plagued region of Ethiopia
Richard Hiault

PARIS — New York City. 2022. The Big Apple is packed — with 44 million inhabitants — and roasting. Average temperatures are in excess of 30ºC. The metropolis is enveloped in a thick, greyish fog. Water is scarce. Fauna and flora have almost disappeared. Food produced from agriculture is a distant memory, alive only in the minds of the older generations. Only a few rich, privileged people have access to fruit, meat, strawberry jam or bourbon.

The vast majority has long been eating synthetic food produced by the multinational corporation Soylent. These are small square tablets of different colors, depending on the day of delivery. That year, a new one joins the collection: Soylent Green, more nutritive, but also more expensive and delivered on Tuesdays only. That's when one of the company's board members, William Simonson, is killed at his home, in one of the tower blocks in a wealthy neighborhood. Police officer Thorn leads the investigation and eventually finds out the horrible truth: Soylent Green isn't made with "high-energy plankton," as the company claims, but with human corpses! Anthropophagy has entered the human food system. And because he wanted to reveal the truth, William Simonson was assassinated.

This short synopsis of Richard Fleischer's 1973 science-fiction movie Soylent Green, with Charlton Heston playing Thorn, expresses in an apocalyptic fashion the dread of an overexploited planet and an alimentary future threatened by overpopulation and resource scarcity.

This anxiety resurfaces today as famine affects Niger, Ethiopia and, even more severely, South Sudan. The fear of global starvation, however, is much more ancient. Malthus first sparked the debate in 1798. The English economist reckoned that population was rising faster than resources, so he concluded that inevitably, demographic catastrophes would unfold unless population growth was restricted. His forecasts didn't materialize. Higher agricultural yields and new international means kept pushing the presumed breaking point back.

Room for growth

Richard Fleischer's fears didn't materialize either. Or at least not yet. When the film was released in 1973, there were just 3.8 billion people living on our planet. In 2017, the world population already stands at 7.3 billion. And the number will keep on rising. The UN believes we'll reach 9.7 billion people in 2050 and a little over 11 billion by the end of the century. Fleischer's ghosts might then resurface on a planet where resources (arable land, pastures for livestock, fish stocks) are finite. Though it's been decreasing for several decades, malnutrition is still striking populations. According to the World Bank's World Development Report 2017, 11% of the world population suffers malnutrition. For poor countries, the figure rises to 25%.

There is potential for an increase of food production, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa

Gaël Giraud, chief economist at the French Development Agency, says that "on the sole question of our capability to feed 9 billion people in 2050, our planet has the physical resources to do it." Rabah Arezki, an economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), agrees, as does the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). "Putting all unused land into service, assuming everything else remains equal, would help feed 9 billion people," Arezki argued in a study published last October for the IMF's World Economic Outlook.

Globally, about 20% of the land is still uncultivated. The figure rises over 40% in sub-Saharan Africa and South America, according to the IMF. This means that there is potential for an increase of food production, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where yields are 50% below their potential level, the IMF says. Take corn for example. For the sake of comparative analysis, researchers use the coefficient 1 to measure the yield in the United States, the world's leading corn producer. The yield in sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, is 0.19. And in Asia and Latin America, it is 0.48 and 0.43 respectively. The numbers are similar for rice production, with Oceania as the reference point. Our dear planet Earth, in other words, still has reserves.

"Killer" trade practices

So why do millions of people still suffer — and sometimes die — from hunger? In Niger, more than 1.3 million people (7% of the total population) are in urgent need of food assistance in the next fourth months even though the country had cereal surpluses last year, the UN said in mid-May. In a report it published in March, the Food Security Information Network observed that, "globally, 108 million people in 2016 were reported to be facing crisis level food insecurity or worse. This represents a 35% increase compared to 2015 when the figure was almost 80 million."

The Indian economist Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1998, was the first to warn, as early as 1981, that hunger wasn't necessarily due to a lack of food but rather to a lack of means to buy that food. "It's the inequality of our trade practices that kills," Gaël Giraud confirms. Both the IMF and the OECD denounce the harmful effects of agricultural policies of different countries, done in the name of their food sovereignty and of the protection of their farmers. It's actually one of the reasons why trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization have been blocked for 15 years. Direct or indirect subsidies to farmers distort free trade and, as a result, hinder efficient food distribution. This is particularly striking for soybeans, sugar, rice, wheat, beef, pork and poultry, according to the IMF.

The spawning of wealthier middle classes goes hand in hand with new eating habits

Statistically, 85% of the food is consumed where it is produced. And agricultural products represent just 8% of international trade. But the quick urbanization and galloping growth of African and Asian countries make them dependent on imports. Since 1990, 24 countries (nine from sub-Saharan African, seven from Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and eight from Latin America) have gone from being net exporters to net importers.

It is thus crucial to remove these trade barriers, as emerging economies are rising to power. The spawning of wealthier middle classes goes hand in hand with new eating habits. "Income growth reorients the composition of demand, for instance, toward meat, dairy, vegetables and fresh fruit," writes Rabah Arezki. "Chinese consumers have moved away from staples (such as grains and rice) toward a more diversified and higher-quality diet."

In a recent research paper, Christophe Gouel and Houssein Giumbard of the French research institute Cepii predict an increase in caloric demand of 46% by 2050, with a 95% increase in demand for animal-based calories. The International Food Policy Research Institute, meanwhile, believes that population growth will require a 70% increase in caloric production. What the world is witnessing is no less than a transformation of eating habits.

Rising temperatures

Removing trade barriers alone, however, won't suffice to cover Asia and Africa's needs, with both continents forecast to have 1.3 billion and 875 million more people to feed respectively in 2050. Improvements in land productivity is more than ever a decisive factor, but the dosage must be subtle to protect biodiversity and ecosystems, and avoid increasing carbon emissions too much, the IMF warns.

"The impact from climate imbalance will be very unequally spread"

In the middle term, the main challenge will be dealing with the effects of climate change. "The impact from climate imbalance will be very unequally spread," says Gaël Giraud. "Our simulations indicate that it will soon be too late to be able to keep the global average temperature's rise below 2°C at the end of the century. This means at least +3°C for the African continent and therefore, very likely, a fall in agricultural productivity."

The countries closest to the equator are the most vulnerable. Last year, Ethiopia experienced one of its worst drought episodes in the last decade, and the country relies on the two rainy seasons to obtain 80% of its agricultural production, a sector that employs 85% of the population. "Such extreme events will get worse and take place more frequently," Giraud says. And Africa will be the first to suffer, along with some regions across Asia and Latin America.

But without a close international cooperation, there certainly is a risk that the planet will experience more episodes of famine and potentially violent conflicts. Who knows? The future may even prove Richard Fleischer right, in the more or less long run.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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