The bad news about the world’s population is that we are currently on track to reach 9 billion people by 2050. A rising population requires additional resources to service: more food, more water and more energy. Our resources are already very strained.
The good news is that globally, quality of life has been generally improving these past few decades. More people, especially women, are receiving an education, are better fed, and are participating more fully in the workforce, contributing to the economy. This has led directly to a declining birth rate; in the western world, birth rates are often already lower than population replacement levels, which means that the several decades out, we are likely to experience a decline in western populations. If current trends continue, our population is expected to peak between 2040 and 2070, and begin the process of levelling off.
The bad news is that current population trends may not be sustainable even in the near term. The so-called “Green Revolution” which relied on the use of fossil fuel inputs to manage and increase agricultural production, and which led to those quality of life improvements I referred to earlier, have also left global food security in a bit of a mess. The growth of global food production which we saw over the last half of the 20th century has proven to be unsustainable in the longer term, as growth which relies on the input of non-renewable resources must be. As the price of oil goes up, so does the price of food. The more expensive food is to produce, the fewer people who can afford it. As agricultural lands are lost due to drought, or because of displaced workers, the more expensive food becomes for everyone.
As a result, with a rising population, and rising food prices, the current trend towards a population of 9 billion by mid-century is likely not going to be met. Those two big-ticket issues I wrote about in previous blogs, climate change and peak oil, are going to significantly impact our food security. As a result, we can expect global food shortages to occur in the near future, unless we begin to recognize and address the problems with industrial-scale agriculture which relies on massive inputs of fossil fuels for the growing, harvesting and distribution of food.
What am I saying here? Let me be blunt: I’m talking about the need to change our food production and distribution system or we risk starvation on a massive scale. Hungry people are a threat to international security. If people do not get enough to eat, there is a significant likelihood that they will take matters into their own hands.
In Canada, it might appear that we are relatively insulated from the coming food shortages, as we have an incredible amount of agricultural land, and not that many mouths to feed. Further, even slight warming in global temperatures may create positive situations for agricultural opportunities, as the range of crops might be extended further north. And, since Canada has a good supply of oil, perhaps it makes sense to expect that we’ll weather the agricultural storm better than other parts of the world will.
Canada, however, can not be looked at in isolation. We are connected to global markets through economic forces and agreements, such as NAFTA. The health of our economy relies on exports. Should international markets for our products begin to dry up due to economic collapse, you can bet that Canada will not emerge unaffected.
The Green Revolution, which initially increased crop yields worldwide significantly, has also left us vulnerable to a changing climate and the end of cheap oil. It’s time that we began weaning ourselves off of soil-depleting artificial fertilizers and mechanization. Crop yields can be sustained at current levels if we manage our agricultural lands in innovative ways. Agricultural experts already know how to do this, and even here in North America, farmers have proven that they can sustain current yield levels without significant inputs of oil.
We need to begin to think about agriculture as something different than an industry. Instead, we need to treat agriculture as a life-sustaining resource. In the future, if we choose to take action to ensure our long term food security, agriculture is going to have become much less reliant on fossil fuels and more reliant on labour and human interventions. There will be more farmers, and the farming profession will be a more respected calling than it is today.
Our food must also travel less before it reaches our plates. The cost of moving food around the globe is only going to increase. Strategies which promote eating local are already being implemented around the world. To be even more successful, these strategies may require more significant supports.
Canadians will also need to start eating less meat, as animals bred for meat production in our industrialized agricultural sector are contributors to climate change and oil depletion in a number of ways, including through the consumption of grains. While we can not expect meat to disappear from our diets altogether, we can expect to consume less of it in the future.
Without intervention in our agricultural system, and in our food distribution system, we can expect to suffer the negative consequences of our inaction.
The good news is that we know what we need to do to continue putting food on our plates in the future. The bad news is that we’ve yet to find the political will to begin making the changes to our agricultural sector which we must make. The price for inaction will be high if we continue along the path set out by the so-called Green Revolution. Like the economy in general, which has relied historically on cheap oil for growth, so too has our agricultural sector. This reliance on oil has made both our economy and agricultural sector unsustainable.