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The Global Food Crisis
May 17, 2009 8:59 AM   Subscribe

The End of Plenty: Our hot and hungry world could face a perpetual food crisis. From National Geographic Magazine.

Full page link (warning: printer prompt). Photo Gallery.
posted by dgaicun (36 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
"I think we should keep having more babies, who will figure out how to solve this problem once and for all when they grow up! It's worked so far, dammit!"

I know, sarcasm is one of the lowest forms of wit, but I would like a special exemption for it when people actually believe and behave in a manner consistent with a sincere interpretation of the sarcasm. I wish I were not kidding, but many people without large dents in their craniums or otherwise obvious cognitive deficits cheerfully espouse the "our kids will deal with it, we've always lucked out so far" mechanism for future human survival.

I'm sure we could support a trillion people on the planet if we just had perfect conversion of sunlight into food calories ...
posted by adipocere at 9:22 AM on May 17, 2009


If only people that had a reasonable chance of reading Metafilter were the source of major population growth. The population of the majority of the industrialized is declining, (fertility rate around 1.4) absent immigration from developing nations, and in particular Africa, Indian Subcontinent, and South America.

"perfect conversion of sunlight into food calories" - Isn't that photosynthesis?
posted by sfts2 at 9:40 AM on May 17, 2009


"perfect conversion of sunlight into food calories" - Isn't that photosynthesis?

In the future, instead of breakfast, we'll don our plantsuits and head out to the sunroom for the most important meal of the day.

Then it's shit shower and shave and hustle down the block to plug into our seats on the vine.
posted by notyou at 9:57 AM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


If only people that had a reasonable chance of reading Metafilter were the source of major population growth.

On the other hand, people who read Metafilter probably are from nations that have contributed significantly to converting arable land to non-food cash crop land and overharvesting until the soil is depleted - or did you think we could live on coffee, tobacco, sugar and cocaine? That's also not counting the ocean which has been depleted from both the pollution (Great Pacific Garbage Patch, anyone), and the strip-mine fishing tactics of the last few decades. Or the nations that won't give aid unless abstinence only sex-ed takes precedence over women's rights and birth control.

Yep, damn those poor people. Bringing our world into crisis.
posted by yeloson at 10:20 AM on May 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


The problem of overpopulation might now unfairly burden the poorer nations, the third world nations. It might even be called discriminatory.

But that doesn't mean that there isn't a problem.
posted by adipocere at 10:31 AM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whatever made you think I'm talking about burdens? I'm looking at causes.

Or is that no longer relevant to solving problems these days?
posted by yeloson at 10:45 AM on May 17, 2009


Yeloson, I can see your point, but the fact is, none of that matters if overpopulation isn't stopped. Overpopulation will ultimately deplete the world's resources and lead to famine if it isn't stopped, regardless of all other factors in play.

Besides, who wants to live in a world in which every scrap of resources is devoted to mere survival, just for the dubious benefit of getting to live in a world with a higher population?
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:59 AM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


If only people that had a reasonable chance of reading Metafilter were the source of major population growth.

Before you say something like that again, please take the time to to imagine a planet full of DUs and delmois constantly struggling to get the first word in while the crops fail, with a bunch of Astro Zombies wandering all through it making Dadaist observations.
posted by sidereal at 11:14 AM on May 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


Hey, you can live a surprisingly long time on coffee, tobacco, sugar and cocaine!
posted by jamstigator at 11:40 AM on May 17, 2009


Well, that was horrible and depressing. This is really becoming an age of anxiety and fear, on so many levels.

Can someone suggest a good book on global demographic change and overpopulation? (Specifically I'd like to better understand the 'why's' of unsustainable population growth in the third world.)
posted by Auden at 11:44 AM on May 17, 2009


"contributed significantly to converting arable land to non-food cash crop land and overharvesting until the soil is depleted"

I'm trying to parse your point from this statement. On one hand, you seem to suggest that developed nations use their land resources for frivolous non-food purposes, yet on the other you decry over production, at least partially, of food. I'm not guessing that you think that we should somehow force the production of food on all possible land, I'm just not sure what you would advocate. The overwhelming problem of stavation in the developing world is a combination of costs of effective distribution and lack of water, not land - at least as I understand it - and I admit to not being expert in this field. Plus, given what seems to be your distaste for modern 'factory' farming, what do you think would happen to exports of food to the non-producing nations if the industrialized world were to stop over-cultivating and use sustainable, organic farming techniques?
posted by sfts2 at 12:04 PM on May 17, 2009


Ah, see, overpopulation usually solves itself within a relatively short time.

Pollution that permafucks our arable land, or makes the ocean uninhabitable for things we eat, that keeps paying us, generation, after generation.
posted by yeloson at 12:12 PM on May 17, 2009


Well at least the zombies will have something to eat.
posted by XMLicious at 1:45 PM on May 17, 2009


This is really becoming an age of anxiety and fear, on so many levels.

And so it should be.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:59 PM on May 17, 2009


yeloson, so you don't like pollution. On that we agree. But if overpopulation 'solves itself,' why rail against it when it seems to be doing precisdely that? Again, its hard to identify an alternative course of action to the current situation from your statements of the obvious.
posted by sfts2 at 2:02 PM on May 17, 2009


or did you think we could live on coffee, tobacco, sugar and cocaine

That does sound pretty awesome....
posted by wildcrdj at 2:15 PM on May 17, 2009


I eat meat. I have all my life. But I can see the time coming, perhaps in my childrens' lifetime, almost definitely in my grandchildrens' lifetime, where the world will become mostly vegetarian. Meat-eating is non-sustainable. And the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle will soon overpower the need for tasty, tasty bacon.
posted by ColdChef at 2:42 PM on May 17, 2009


But if overpopulation 'solves itself,' why rail against it when it seems to be doing precisdely that?

The observation that overpopulation always solves itself reminds me of a saying an EMT buddy of mine used to have: "all bleeding eventually stops."

Sure, the population will find a sustainable equilibrium over the long run given any set of available resources, but the process of finding that equilibrium might turn out to be a real bitch. The reason to actively try to reduce the population is not to preserve the species — I can't think of many plausible scenarios where extinction is really a possibility — but to preserve some semblance of civilization. I think it's entirely possible that if we just let things go until the population crashes 'naturally' (via famine, or more likely via war or disease, or some combination), there won't be any society that anyone today would be even vaguely interested in living in on the other side. And because all the easily-accessible fossil resources have been depleted, there won't be an easy way to bootstrap civilization back up again.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:43 PM on May 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


Kadin2048, I wanted to say precisely that, only in generally more low-brow terms. Also wanted to say, there is no reason to worry - we can adapt to any conditions and even find them satisfactory - including the civilization-less societies you envisage.

If, after all, civilization brings us to that end, and disappears altogether, what good was it?
posted by Laotic at 3:53 PM on May 17, 2009



Earth will abide.

We are unnecessary.
posted by notreally at 4:04 PM on May 17, 2009


Meat-eating can be sustainable - indeed, meat is a great way to turn stuff we really can't eat (grass) or won't (apple cores) into edible food. But we've gone so far into eating meat that we now feed our meat animals human food like grain, something our meat (and especially dairy product, since most pastoral cultures eat more dairy than meat) eating ancestors would almost never have done.
posted by jb at 4:27 PM on May 17, 2009


Also wanted to say, there is no reason to worry - we can adapt to any conditions and even find them satisfactory - including the civilization-less societies you envisage.

BULLSHIT.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:37 PM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


The only rational approach, and the difficult thing in questions like this is to somehow move the discussion from 'This situation X is bad/unsustainable/immoral/blah' to 'given all the practical realities, constraints, political considerations, and human nature what do we do differently that leads to progress.' Its easy to say 'everyone needs to stop eating meat' or some such nonsense but everyone isn't going to do that - so what do you propose is DONE? There is rhetoric, dreams, wishes, and hopes, and then there is actual effective action. This last bit is the sticky part.

As a bit of a derail, this is the part of governing that I think Obama gets, and what provides me with some modest hope for our future.
posted by sfts2 at 4:53 PM on May 17, 2009


Oh, and that picture of starving child/vulture is going to bed with me tonight, and its an unwelcome visitor. Fucking five fresh fish photo friggin frightening.
posted by sfts2 at 4:59 PM on May 17, 2009


or did you think we could live on coffee, tobacco, sugar and cocaine?

Sounds like a party!
posted by delmoi at 6:32 PM on May 17, 2009


That guest appearance from Smug Revenant Malthus at the end was really unnecessary. The article was terrifying enough already.
posted by No-sword at 8:49 PM on May 17, 2009


live on coffee, tobacco, sugar and cocaine

We'd need some pepto sooner rather than later.
posted by flaterik at 8:49 PM on May 17, 2009


In 1943 as many as four million people died in the "Malthusian correction" known as the Bengal Famine.

The implication here is that the Bengal Famine happened because there wasn't enough food for everyone. This is what Amartya Sen calls the "Food Availability Doctrine" (FAD) that is so often invoked to explain famines.

However, as Sen persuasively argues in his Povert and Famines, the Bengal famine was not caused by a shortage of food, but because the poorest could not afford food (an "entitlement" failure, in his words). A couple of reasons Sen identifies as being responsible for the famine are the war-time inflation that increased food prices, and controls on trading of grain with other provinces in India.

(Not saying food shortage is not a global problem --- just that it might not have been the cause for the Bengal Famine).
posted by Idle Curiosity at 1:50 AM on May 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Apropos of this, here's a very interesting TED talk on why cheap, white bread is critical to world survival.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:21 AM on May 18, 2009


Idle Curiosity's comment picked up on what annoys me about most discussions of hunger and the 'Food Crisis.' They conflate at least three different factors that could cause hunger.

First is capacity. The Malthusian days of yore. And the point of the article linked above.

Second is political. As IC describes above, this was largely the cause of the Bengal famine. Also largely the cause of the Sudanese problem that spawned fff's photo link.

Third is economic. Partly the cause of the Bengal famine. Also visible in those in extreme poverty in an otherwise healthy area.

It frustrates me that whenever one want to speak about issues with capacity that they invoke examples of the others. For scare tactics, it makes sense. It will get people to notice. But it shows an intellectual laziness.
posted by FuManchu at 3:24 AM on May 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


People with amenable growing conditions should become backyard farmers (veggies, milk, meat). Perhaps WE should all be doing this instead of talking about what OTHERS should do fix this crisis. Right or wrong?
posted by boots77 at 4:29 AM on May 18, 2009


I got sterilized in order not to reproduce.

What did you do?
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 AM on May 18, 2009


Anyone who decides to not have children does more for the environment than any David Suzuki or Al Gore ever will.
posted by you just lost the game at 8:59 PM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks to all youyou ZPG whiners not having kids, my descendants will be enjoying cleaner air and vacations to other planets while your memory will be nothing but a few compressed bits of internet posturing on an archival crystal in some storage vault.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:03 PM on May 18, 2009


one you, dammit.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:03 PM on May 18, 2009


Tell your kids they're welcome.
posted by flabdablet at 9:10 PM on May 18, 2009


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