By Grant Potter
United Nations population statistics predict that the human population will reach 10 billion people by, 2100 with most of the increases coming from sub-Saharan Africa. Given the nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people today, the UN estimate represents a looming challenge. The New York Times assembled a group of thinkers from different scientific backgrounds—including mathematics, history, economics, environmental studies, and engineering—to tackle the population problem. While they propose different solutions, they agree that our current trajectory cannot extend earth’s carrying capacity to support 10 billion people. A common thread between them is the importance of food production and consumption in the coming century.
A shift towards more vegetarian diets is one way to reduce the ecological strain of feeding ten billion people. (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)
“Whatever is sustainable with 7 Billion people will not be with 10 billion,” says Jason Clay, senior vice president at the World Wildlife Fund, “we currently use 33 percent of the Earth’s surface for food.” Clay stresses that the main challenge is “increasing the supply while preserving the environment.” He suggests that cuts to waste and inefficiency must trickle down from the top of the global supply chain. He applauds the anti-deforestation pledge by the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF)—a collective of major global retailers that develops industry standards which their supply chain follows. CGF recently pledged to eliminate deforestation by 2020 by only buying responsibly forested products from their suppliers.
Joel Cohen, professor of population studies at Rockefeller University and Columbia University, also argues that our current allocation of resources, particularly grain, requires major readjustment. “Roughly one third [of grain] is consumed by domestic animals,” says Cohen, while “more than one sixth of grain goes into industrial products like biofuels.” According to Cohen’s estimates, “current grain production could feed 11 billion people.”
Brad Allenby, professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona States University, believes that humanity should invest heavily in technological solutions to food production. He cites the Green Revolution, “an unanticipated evolution of agricultural technology,” for its role in disproving dire population predictions in the 1970s. Allenby does not presume to predict the earth-saving technology, but rather thinks it will be a completely “out-of-left-field technology, like growing meat in factories from stem cells.” He is confident that rapid technological growth will catch up to population growth.
Unlike the other authors, ethical futurist Jamais Cascio, research fellow at the Institute for the Future, argues that the solution will not come from an increase in production but from a reduction in consumption. He explains “ten billion people with post-industrial world consumption habits would overwhelm resource supplies and waste streams.” As incomes increase in the developing world, many have begun to adopt Western-style diets and levels of consumption. If these norms are seriously scaled back, such as a global shift to a “primarily vegetarian diet,” says Cascio, then “the planet might make it.”
Do you have a solution to cope with population growth? Tell us in the comments!
Grant Potter is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.