by Rhodri C. Williams
Just a quick note to draw readers’ attention to a special report on what it will take to feed a global population of 9 billion by 2050 in this week’s Economist. Like much of the material in the Economist, the special reports are only available for a limited time, but can be downloaded in .pdf format while they last. Intriguingly, next week’s edition is slated to include a special report on ‘property’.
Turning to the current report on food security, land is discussed as a constraint on the increases in yield needed to keep up with global population growth, but is accorded less significance than other variables, notably water and fertilizer. One of the most interesting conclusions of the report is that genetic modification of both livestock and plants may facilitate a second green revolution that might for the first time allow the stabilizing population of the world to eat properly, climate change notwithstanding. One of the most worrisome conclusions is that achieving these types of technological leaps may be the only way to avoid catastrophe.
On the issue of land, the special report asserts that intensive agriculture along Brazilian lines, together with extensive use of fertilizer and genetically modified crops, will be necessary evils. The article notes that clearing of new land would be counterproductive, in part due to the cost of losing further forests, and in part because little readily arable land remains uncleared. However, the report cites World Bank findings indicating that cultivated land could be increased by one-third worldwide by bringing intensive methods to areas with fewer than 25 people per hectare currently living on them.
The World Bank is also cited as noting that up to an eighth of such ‘available’ land has already been put to cultivation by foreign investors in only three years since the ‘global land rush’ phenomenon began in earnest. While this is taken as evidence that the remaining seven eights can quickly be put to the service of a hungry world, it also raises some questions that are not fully addressed in the report. One of the foremost relates to the fate of the twenty five or fewer people currently occupying each of the half-billion hectares in question.