Can the World Feed 10 Billion People? Can the World Feed 10 Billion People?

Can the World Feed 10 Billion People?

by Peter Smith

May 11, 2011

What complicates these projections is the methods we use for measuring global food production—maximum yields, arable land, and per capita energy intake. All these variables are complex and highly subjective, so the deep structure of debate about feeding the world comes down to data.

Historian Warren Belasco argues in A History of the Future of Food that hunger is newsworthy only when it's countable, so the recurring debates—biotechnology versus agroecology—have really been battles over which data the sages and oracles use to predict the future of food. Ending hunger is more than just redistributing calories, Belasco says. It's about questioning the underlying assumption involved with concentrating calories into profitable and wasteful products.

In short, calculations of the total food supply require a comprehensive audit of the global food chain. Production of calories is only the start.

Furthermore, the 3,000-calories-a-day solution comes with cultural assumptions. Think about a school lunch. Chances are it's made with wheat and corn. And we generally give kids liquid milk instead of cultured yogurts. Those choices aren't universal.

Until we answer the more qualitative questions—how many people do we feed for how long, with what technology, and with what kind of stability—any population estimates will continue fostering competing visions by the world's cornucopianists or Malthusian catastrophists.

Photo (cc) by NASA Goddard Photo and Video; map via Chartbins

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Can the World Feed 10 Billion People?