Guest Commentary: Global Stress Points

January 6, 2012 02:20 PM

DavidLambertBy David Lambert

A discussion on global food security stress points should perhaps begin with the work of economist Thomas Malthus about 200 years ago. Malthus theorized that food production could increase only gradually (largely because of limitations of land), while population could rise exponentially. He concluded that since population will outpace food production, hunger and famine are inevitable.

So far, our progress in sustainable ag practices, new technologies and increased productivity have defeated Malthus’ theory. Corn yields have nearly doubled in the past 30 years, and one American farmer now produces enough food for 155 people.

However, given current population projections, coupled with global food demands, some say Malthus’ theory is still lurking. Let’s take a look.

Population. A 70% increase in food production will be required to support our population jump from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050. That’s the equivalent of adding two more Chinas to the planet.

It is not the big number of 9 billion that is the principal concern. It is where those 9 billion are going to live.

Only two places on the planet are losing population: Japan and Eastern Europe because of lower fertility rates and no migration in.

China—at 1.3 billion—will begin to decline within two decades. India, at 1.2 billion people, will reach 1.7 billion by 2050, due to bad governance and social traditions. India currently has 42% of all child malnutrition in the world. Then there’s Africa—a continent that has rocketed from 611 million in 2000 to 800 million today.

Based on data from the Population Reference Bureau, here are three of the most alarming examples of countries expected to experience deepening food security crises:

  • East Africa’s Uganda, now 32 million and the size of Oregon, will reach 96 million by 2050, meaning its population will be nearly triple in 40 years.
  • Nigeria, now at 160 million, is thought to reach 400 million by 2050; it will then equal the population of the U.S., but with one-tenth of the land.
  • Ethiopia has grown 850% to 85 million in just three generations, and is still rising fast.

Climate change. A recent poll of Midwest farmers found that 32% believe climate change is either not occurring or that there is not enough evidence to believe it is occurring.

On the flip side, the world’s top climate scientists deliver the same message each October at the World Food Prize in Des Moines: climate change is real, is here and its consequences are and will continue to be devastating.

What are the consequences of climate change?

  • Higher temperatures, by 2° or more by the end of the century, brought on largely by greenhouse gas.
  • Rising sea levels.
  • Less drinking water.
  • Spreading of human diseases.
  • Lower crop yields. The Global Crop Diversity Trust concurs with Stanford University’s research that climate change will cause a 30% decrease in production of maize by 2030.
  • New plant diseases and pests. Insects already consume 25% of the world’s crops.
  • Increasingly aberrational weather patterns, such as droughts and floods.
  • Increasing and continuing food price volatility.

Most experts say climate change is man-made, but let me pose this question: If you suddenly discovered your house was on fire, at that moment does it matter whether it was struck by lightning or whether a child knocked over a candle? Is your challenge and obligation not the same?

Water. Most of us assume water will always be around. As Americans, we use about 100 gal. a day in each of our homes. However, water is by far the most troubling of all issues because of its increasing scarcity and because it directly determines food availability.

Experts urge our awareness of global flashpoints, as well as sensitivity to demands for available and safe water:

  • Only 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh (most is frozen). Agriculture and industry use 98% of the fresh water.
  • 5,600 children die each day from "dirty" water.
  • The world population today is 50% urban and 50% rural; by 2050, we will be 70% urban. Let’s talk hardball politics: Who gets the water?
  • In 15 years, 2 billion people will live in regions of severe water shortage.
  • 12 to 15 of the world’s rivers today never reach the sea.
  • 1 liter of water is required to produce 1 calorie of food.
  • 800 tons of water are needed to produce 1 ton of grain.

This issue, of course, directly relates back to climate change, which makes water more scarce, especially in tropical regions.


David Lambert is an internationally recognized advocate for global food security. His Washington, D.C.–based firm provides strategic policy advice on issues related to global food security, including child nutrition, food safety and biotechnology. He recently spoke at the Farm Journal Forum.

Learn more about the Farm Journal Forum.

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