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Guess who’s coming to dinner? Feeding our billions without plowing the entire planet

Dan Farber, professor of law | March 18, 2015

Who’s coming for dinner? The answer, in case you’re wondering, is “two billion more people.”  That’s the population increase predicted for 2050.  How are we going to feed those people?

One method is to cut down a lot of the world’s remaining forests and plow the world’s remaining grasslands. That’s a bad approach environmentally: it will release a lot of carbon and destroy a huge amount of biodiversity.

If we don’t go that direction, we need to be able to feed the additional population while using very little more land than today.  That means using land more efficiently — for example, feeding people grain directly rather than using the grain to feed cattle. But it also means improvements in crop yields and in the nutritional content of foods.  Current trends in yields are not going to produce those improvements. (If you’re looking for more details, look at the Economists issue on the subject.)

What that means is that we need a lot more agricultural research.  Yet research funding has been declining in recent years, as shown by this chart:

ag research trends

Agricultural research isn’t exactly sexy — it’s not as cool as finding new Earth-like planets or as appealing as medical research.  And environmentalists, by and large, aren’t big fans of large-scale farming to begin with, and tend to reject use of some techniques like GMOs to increase yields.  But saving rainforests and controlling climate change are more important than these First World concerns. We urgently need more agricultural research to find sustainable ways to produce the huge amount of extra food we’re going to need by mid-century.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, this is a completely disinterested argument.  Berkeley doesn’t even have an agriculture school.  Our ag. school ran away from home and grew up to become UC Davis.

Ag. research isn’t sexy, but the environmental case is compelling — not to mention the food needs of those two billion people.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Guess who’s coming to dinner? Feeding our billions without plowing the entire planet

  1. Don’t reproduce anymore humans. We already have enough people. The earth cannot support more humans. It will be like HG Wells time machine. People will eat people.

  2. Dan, CALIFORNIA alumni magazine’s Sept/Oct 2006 “Global Warning” issue stated the ultimate conclusion in the cover story “Can We Adapt in Time?“.

    “Whether resistance to global warming lies more in the hungers of American culture, or because our species is wired to ignore problems in some far-away future—this matters less now than it may have a few years ago, because the future has arrived.”

    Does Berkeley have a solution to this problem that makes feeding billions even more impossible?

  3. Prof. Farber, my failed efforts to motivate on Berkeley Blog with comments like “It is time Berkeley professors and scholars unite and lead, with the greatest sense of urgency, to save our civilization before our Decline and Fall eliminates our opportunities to do so” continue after years of trying.

    Is this because the survival of the human race has become an impossible dream now that we have plundered our planet to the point of no return and cooperation to produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for future generations is no longer an option that politicians and intellectuals have the ability to achieve?

  4. Agriculture worldwide (not just in California) will become increasingly dependent on adequate water supplies much more than on increased land acreage. And the bad news worldwide, according to the UN, is that “The planet is facing a 40% shortfall in water supply by 2030”.

    Such a profound paradox that vast amounts of water are available on planet Earth……except for one small detail: the presence of sodium chloride (salt). Cheap, efficient desalination will be the fundamental key to viable agriculture to feed the planet.

  5. Prof. Farber, considering our increasingly out of control problems with climate change, population, resources, violence, inequality, etc. we live on an entirely new, and rapidly changing planet in this new century already.

    So far in this century, all of our social, political and economic institutions have proven to be totally incapable of meeting the challenges of change that Will and Ariel Durant warned us about.

    We spend most of our efforts talking about the problems, but no one is doing anything to solve our problems so that future generations shall have an acceptable quality of life.

    It is time Berkeley professors and scholars unite and lead, with the greatest sense of urgency, to save our civilization before our Decline and Fall eliminates our opportunities to do so.

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