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Thanks to global warming and overpopulation, humans stand on the brink of a massive food crisis. To address the crisis, we might need to get creative. Salient’s science team brings you the causes of the food crisis, some practical steps we can take to avert it, and the long-term sci-fi solutions.
Too Many Mouths (On the Dance Floor)
The idea of the world running out of one of our most vital necessities seems absurd at first, but it only takes a quick look at how inefficient our food industries already are to see how real this potential threat is.
The most obvious reason Earth might run out of food is, at its simplest, the idea that food sources are ultimately finite—it takes longer to make food than it does to consume (or waste) it. It was this simple notion that lead to the concept of the “Malthusian Catastrophe”, Thomas Malthus’ 1798 prediction that eventually our exponential population growth would outpace agricultural production.
While his original predictions were inaccurate regarding timing, the theory still remains relevant. After World War Two agricultural productivity soared, and Malthus began to seem irrelevant. However, rather than being out of the woods, productivity in fact fuelled the problem. As world food supplies increased, food prices dropped and food became more available than ever, allowing longer lifespans through better nutrition and generating faster population growth—thus creating a cycle that won’t be sustainable forever.
The rapid expanse of the Roman Empire coupled with its inefficient agricultural practices was one of the reasons for its failure. By expanding so fast, there were more and more mouths to feed. This inadvertently hastened the self-inflicted damage on their food production, meaning that more people to feed meant faster elimination of their food, until the Empire could no longer feed its people.
However, population growth surpassing food supply is not the only threat, nor even the biggest. One of the most imminent issues we face is the effect of global warming on our food supply.
Agricultural food supplies require a very complex and sensitive balance to achieve optimum yields. Soil nutrient levels, moisture, water availability, droughts, and floods are all affected by the climate. As the global temperature increases, our potential crop yields lower. Similarly, our fish sources are depleting due to ocean habitat changes. Less food for humans goes hand in hand with less food for farm livestock, creating a vicious cycle. The longer climate change goes unmitigated, the more extreme these effects may become.
Global warming affects the transportation of food as well as its production. Very few regions are able to feed themselves self-sustainably, and those that can are still met with many handicaps when distributing food. Transportation of food requires a lot of fuel, which itself also only has a finite supply. Furthermore, burning these fuels creates carbon emissions, exacerbating global warming.
The finite nature of fossil fuels has lent greater attention to alternative fuels, including biofuels such as corn ethanol. However, though not a fossil fuel, corn ethanol poses new issues by raising the price of corn and therefore corn-based foods.
Transport issues are also part of a very tangled web involving inefficient food production processes and counterintuitive policies, as certain policies can dictate where a nation’s food is grown and where it is transported.
One example of this is Russia, which last year banned food imports from the EU. The rationale was that Russia simply has a lot of food supplies, and should avoid sourcing it from elsewhere. Unfortunately, Russia is a very large landmass, and has a relatively flimsy infrastructure. In many cases, transporting food between Russian cities is in fact vastly less efficient (slower, more expensive, more fuel consuming) than importing.
Another example is UK lamb production and consumption—the carbon footprint of lamb produced and consumed in the UK is greater than that of lamb imported from New Zealand.
There are many reasons why food sources are at risk of depletion, many contributing factors that hinder food production and distribution. Unless we begin to mitigate more of these factors, a global food crisis could be imminent.
You Are What You Eat
(So Let’s Be Small Fish and Crickets)
If we’re going to solve the global food crisis, we need to get ready to either tighten our belts or expand our palates. Here are just some of the far-reaching but practical proposals being made that ensure we live to gorge another day.
The current legal fishing practice is size-selective fishing, by which we catch the most largest and presumably fully-grown fish from each school to allow the smaller, younger fish to mature and reproduce so they and their young can be caught at a later date. To the fish this seems like some kind of inevitable Kafka-esque horror, but we humans only think that this is sensible. But what we inadvertently end up doing is breeding smaller fish, due to genetics.
It goes like this: alleles are versions of a gene that determine the traits expressed in an organism. In fish, there are alleles that determine at what size fish mature, with larger fish maturing slower but producing more offspring, and vice versa for small fish. By catching only the largest fish out of the environment, we severely decrease the reproduction rate of fish populations and create a selection pressure that means only small fish survive to reproduce.
A proposed alternative is “balanced harvesting”, where we simply harvest a smaller amount of fish from a larger sampling of sizes, meaning all sizes of fish have the time to replenish. Unfortunately, fishing is heavily regulated, so changing the legislation would prove difficult. They say that there’s plenty of fish in the sea, but if we can’t change both our laws and our habits, we may be in too deep.
Eating meat just isn’t cricket
Currently, 38 per cent of all land on Earth is used for agriculture, using up an immense amount of land and clean water in the process. One proposal that is gaining traction to save on farmland is to switch to eating insects.
In parts of Africa and Asia, insects such as locusts and crickets are a delicacy, but the West has always associated them with blights and dying crops, so naturally we’ve never been too keen on having them in our lunch. But we probably should, because it turns out insects are actually super good for you. Crickets, for instance, are packed with calcium and iron, and 80 per cent of them is digestible, compared to 40 per cent of beef. Mealworms, the kind they feed lizards and frogs in pet stores, are perfectly fit for human consumption and contain plenty of fibre. For the bakers among you, you can order mealworm flour online that you can use to make cookies and cakes, so it’s not as if you need to eat them as they are.
Freeganism is a movement whose followers go out of their way not to pay for their food so that their hard-earned cash doesn’t line the coffers of those eeeeevil corporations. Instead, they eat the leftover food thrown out by restaurants, essentially choosing to live like hobos. Alternately, they use non-monetary means by which to buy their food instead, such as bartering, thus becoming the very freeloaders that the rich accuse them of being. Freeganism has been around since 1999, but has recently since been in an upswing thanks to other anti-corporate movements such as Occupy.
Of course, corporations being corporations, a hit new movement means another demographic from which to profit. In January of this year, certain McDonald’s restaurants in America started a policy by which patrons could pay for their food with selfies and hugs. Was everyone lovin’ it? Not exactly. The backlash served only to aggravate the debate over the minimum wages the restaurant chain had been paying for years. But it also serves to point out the less compassionate parts of the freegan philosophy: that by refusing to give money to corporations, you’re taking money from the people that give up their time to work for them.
While it has its flaws, the freegan philosophy isn’t all dumpster diving and eating out of trash cans. Many charities and humanitarian organisations take the unsold food from cafes and bars and open up stores to give them to the community for free. For a local example, the not-for-profit Free Store in Wellington is open Monday to Friday from 6pm at 211 Willis Street.
Start the Reactor
To keep our species alive, we need to find another home. Earth has neither the resources nor the security to sustain us indefinitely. In five to six billion years’ time, our sun will become a red giant and we’ll be reduced to a molten ball of rock. Failing that, we will irreparably destroy our ecosystem or, as many people believe, an asteroid will wipe us out, just like it did in 2012. And so, looking to the stars, we must find another abode to raise our future children.
The unique properties needed for life are liquid water, a breathable atmosphere and a warm surface temperature. This occurs in the “Goldilocks Zone”, the belt of a solar system in which a planet has these qualities. Too far from the local star and the planet will freeze; too close and it will burn up. In 2013 the Kepler Space Telescope found 40 billion planets occupying habitable zones—we’re rather spoiled for choice.
However, emigrating the world’s population to various planets is currently neither practical nor possible. But what about closer to home? Can we form another Earth in our own solar system? Our technology is nowhere near advanced enough and the funding for it is pitiful. Venus and Mars are both promising future candidates, but neither planet meets all the criteria needed to sustain life.
Mars has a thin atmosphere comprising mainly of CO2 with a surface pressure of 600 pascals (0.6 per cent that of our own). It reaches a high of 20°C in summer and -153°C in winter. Venus has a dense atmosphere, equivalent to being one kilometre underwater on Earth, with a surface temperature of 462°C.
On Mars, two birds can be killed with one stone, if the stone is a space mirror. Mirrors made of a highly reflective lightweight substance, Mylar, could direct sunlight onto the planet’s surface. The polar caps of Mars are composed of frozen water and solidified CO2 deposits. The mirrors would vaporise the deposits, thickening the atmosphere and thus warming the planet. Planetary oceans and temperate climates would form. Adding genetically altered phytoplankton would convert dissolved CO2 into oxygen and carbon, forming a simple carbon cycle and a breathable atmosphere. The planet would then be habitable for colonists, plants and animals meaning, ta-daa, we have a new Earth.
To achieve similar results on Venus, a lot more effort is required. Any probe sent to the planet is either dissolved by the sulphuric acid present or crushed by the immense pressure. To prevent this, the carbon dioxide atmosphere must be thinned by adding hydrogen. This would react to form vast amounts of graphite and water, generating an ocean and lowering the surface pressure.
However, to create a sea covering 80 per cent of the planet and to decrease the pressure to three times our own would require a lot of hydrogen—about 20 moons’ worth. Jupiter has enough hydrogen for us to do this 36 million times over so sourcing it will not be difficult. The surface would quickly cool to 128°C and continue to decrease over time.
But is there an easier way still? Can we forgo interplanetary haulage of gases and mirrors? Kenneth Roy, a speaker at the Icarus Interstellar Congress, has proposed “Shell Worlds” as a simpler solution. By building a shell around an entire planet, the temperature, atmosphere, pressure and water content can be controlled as easily as in a laboratory.
A geologically inert planet, such as Mars, would suffice as there would be no volcanic eruptions to blow a hole in the construct. Colonists could live on the ground, in hanging cities or in the shell itself. Factory structures would occupy the shell so all waste could be ejected into space. The planet needn’t occupy the Goldilocks Zone either. If the conditions could be properly synthesised, the replicas would be a home away from home.
Yet, for any of these possibilities to come to fruition we need to survive on Earth for long enough to advance that far. Here’s hoping.