Sunday, June 29, 2014

Prevent 2 Billion Births By 2050 – Or Two Billion Will Starve

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Four years after World War II a defeated Japan had to finally come to terms with its enormous waste of resources in the effort to build a global empire – ending with the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Incredibly, as Japanese soldiers came home to their wives they learned that Japan had added 10 million new babies. The U.S. also had its own baby boom, but the conditions in the U.S. were different because an enormous defense industry had launched the country out of a prolonged depression and its economy could support the influx. Japan’s couldn’t.

 Japan’s economy was wrecked and people were starving. Pregnant women were hurling themselves in front of trains – realizing the only alternative was to see their children starve to death. And so it was in 1949 – in an emergency measure  - Japan legalized abortion and millions of Japanese women partook lest they watch their babies die of hunger.

 The horrific example of what occurred in post-war Japan is an object lesson for what transpires when accessible resources, for whatever reason, are outstripped by mouths to feed. Though people don’t like to admit it, or concede the point, the fact is that human population growth is critically tied to food availability.  The same object lesson can be found in what happened to the Easter Islanders, whose population also outstripped its food supply.

 The Easter Islanders went from a maximum 20,000-odd population ca. 1600 AD to barely 1,000 when the first Europeans landed in 1720. The newcomers found that the natives had descended into war and cannibalism. They basically expended all their wood, forest stores – and were reduced to living in caves by the time the Europeans arrived.

What happened? The Islanders grew too comfortable with their resources, and began to consume them at a rate beyond their replacement. This had a critical impact because of the fact: a) Easter Island was so remote - closest other island is Pitcairn, 1240 miles west, and b) the trees that formed the base of the resource supply were limited in extent.

Because of the trees, the Islanders could build adequate shelters, plus construct boats able to navigate many miles offshore to catch large dolphin (fish, not mammals) and eat heartily. But they became too sated too soon. Their ability to provide a bounty of food early drove their birth numbers higher. From a base population of » 3500, it grew to 5500, then 7800, then 10,000, then 15,000.

As the Easter Islanders'  numbers increased on the tiny island, the demand for lumber did as well. Massive deforestation became the rule, as they cut down trees to try to keep pace with the exploding population. Before long, the new seedlings planted could not reach the maturity needed to build the sturdy fishing boats to go miles offshore and catch dolphin. The populace was now reduced to scavenging for small mollusks near the tidal basin, and to hunt whatever birds there were (the birds were hunted to extinction).

As people, then animals, soon descended to eating the seeds of the trees, collapse set in. By the time the Europeans arrived there were no more wood shelters, and the Islanders had retreated into caves and had been eating each other for decades.

 A look into our near  future discloses a very similar scenario might well await us, and the numbers are unforgiving no matter which way a putative “Pollyanna” slices them.

Currently, we are adding 1 million humans every 4.5 days, and that's with reasonably available  contraception. This leads to likely 11 billion people on this planet – all vying for limited food and resources – by 2100, and 9.5 billion by 2050. Take away the contraception availability and we find instead one million people added every 2.5  days leading to 16 billion by 2011 and 12 billion by 2050.

 My argument is that even with the lower reproductive load (already 6 billion beyond Earth's carrying capacity by some experts' reckoning)  we will not be able to meet food demand, and up to 2 billion will probably starve. In other words, we had better insure somehow or some way those extra babies are not generated or we may find ourselves in the same position as the Japanese post-WWII.

 Don’t believe me? Look at the numbers and look at them hard!

Even with the spread of modern farming methods the yield gains globally are now just 0.9 to 1.6 percent per year – and getting worse as climate change intensifies. A 2009 report published by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that if CO2 climbs from the current level of 396 parts per million to above 450 ppm the world will face irreversible dry season reductions in several regions which some experts liken to the ‘dust bowl’ seen in the U.S. in the 1930s. 

In the U.S. alone, annual grain harvests have fallen the past two decades from 324 million tons to 204 million tons as drought and climate conditions for crops have become more adverse. The U.S., the world’s dominant grain supplier, has had substantial stocks to draw upon but these will vanish as drought conditions intensify.  We could even see yield gains globally dive to just 0.3 percent per year by 2020, and 0.1 percent by 2035.  Given a 1.6- 2.4 percent annual increase in world population, this is a recipe for famine worldwide.

The bottom line is that it’s becoming much more difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up with the world’s growing demand for grain – largely spurred by population increase but also by rising middle classes in China and India. The fact is, however, that world grain stocks have been drawn down over a decade and we’ve not been able to rebuild them since. If we cannot do so, and there are many more indicators that we can’t than we can, food prices will soar and hunger will spread. It is a case of numbers and the law of supply and demand.

How bad is it? According to Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Crop Systems and Global Change program, it’s a “mess”. Ziska co-authored a chapter on food security and food production systems in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, so he ought to know.

Ziska in a recent interview observed that in the past yield gains could be achieved  by adding energy in the form of fertilizer and adding water. But fertilizer is not only expensive but a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and in any case is becoming more difficult to obtain in quantity as the more accessible oil gives way to kerogen (oil shale) and tar sands. Water resources around the world are also in crisis, as droughts intensify and the whole problem is exacerbated by the global fracking phenomenon – which uses on average 3 to 5 million gallons of fresh water for each well.

 Here in Colorado alone, the state’s farmers are being regularly outbid at “water auctions” by the oil and gas companies. Hence, diminished water for farming and crops – ever more to inject into frack wells.  The fracked water injections in Oklahoma are so frequent that hundreds of earthquakes have been spawned the past 2 years. Fresh water loss from fracking is happening all over, including in places as far away as Australia and Europe.

 Ziska also points out that as climate change intensifies crops’ heat stress will increase, not to mention proliferation of pests and weeds. Already farmers in the SW U.S. are begging the USDA to be able to use the most lethal weed killer available (paraquat) to fight an invasion of glyphosate -resistant pig weed.  In Michigan, hog weed has invaded and necessitated workers in hazmat suits to remove it, since even a little of its sap on bare skin can cause the equivalent of a 2nd degree burn.

Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and the World Resources Institute, notes that “Population growth rates are higher and higher. It’s getting harder to keep up with yield gains than we previously thought.”

 The bottom line? Growing more crops per acre remains elusive for all the reasons given above. We’re simply not going to be able to feed 2.6 billion more mouths by 2050 using better seeds or watering a little more land (assuming water is even available – and the rate at which fracking is being done, it may not be!)

 Reducing meat consumption and food waste as well as improving efficiency  will surely help  but perhaps to salvage 0.6 billion mouths,  not all of the extra 2.6 billion conservatively projected by 2050 .

Two billion then will starve unless something radical is done and soon. Simple gimmicks or dreams of a magic technology fix won’t save us and the time is upon us for hard choices. One possible but draconian solution: nations can do what China is doing and tax families at six times their income if they have any more children than population replacement level. But even that may not be adequate.

See also:,27166/

(The above is intended to be a typical "Onion-esque" spoof or sarcastic take on the issue - but actually contains more than a grain of truth. Laugh good, but then think about the underlying fact that we REALLY do need to decrease our numbers. As Isaac Asimov once put it: "We can either lower our numbers ourselves or nature will do it for us.")


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