We Can Feed 10 Billion, But Will We?

African farmland
African farmland

Concerns about food – what we now call food security – are as old as mankind. Thomas Malthus’ eloquentEssay on Population, published in 1798, crystallised the dilemma for modern times. Malthus argued that humanity was doomed to poverty and famine because the human population grew exponentially, while mankind’s ability to produce food could only increase at a linear rate.

When Malthus wrote his essay, the human population was about a billion. Over the next century and a half, it tripled to 3bn and by the turn of the 21st century, it had more than doubled again to 7bn. Remarkably, even as the human population expanded from 3 to 6bn, the fraction of people enduring chronic hunger had fallen from half to about a sixth.

But if Malthus thought the game was already over in 1800, how did we manage to grow seven-fold and reduce the fraction of the hungry at the same time? The answer is that science and technology have completely transformed agriculture in the last two centuries. In fact, it was just about the time that Malthus was putting his thoughts on paper that science began to enter agriculture systematically with a growing understanding of how plants turn chemicals into food powered only by sunlight.

Key scientific and technological developments of the early 20th century included the invention of a method for converting atmospheric nitrogen into forms that plants can use (fertiliser) and the invention of tractors powered by fossil fuels. Whether it’s rice or corn, planting, cultivation or harvesting, machines do the work in many countries, allowing the majority of humanity to live in cities and do many things other than producing food. Moreover, over the 20th century, plant breeders and biotechnologists have coaxed ever more grain from the same amount of land.

Despite all of this progress, the array of challenges facing humanity in the 21st century is daunting as it seeks to develop an agriculture that can feed a human population approaching 10bn with less water, chemicals and energy, as well as a smaller ecological footprint. The food supply is now global and these challenges are correspondingly global in their scope: their solutions demand scientific and technological innovation on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

And yet there are many, many farmers who grow crops and tend animals much as their ancestors did centuries ago. What does it take to cross that huge divide?

Looking to countries that have done so in recent decades, including Brazil and China, the answers that emerge are much the same as those to be gleaned from countries that achieved the status of ‘developed’ much earlier. At the core, they’re surprisingly simple: education, research and training. But there are also thornier issues of subsidies, trade barriers, capital investment, and protection against the recurring risk of crop failures.

The problem is that in some odd way, the very success of science-based farming has lulled both the developed and developing worlds into complacency. Investment in agricultural research and modernisation by less developed countries and the development agencies of the developed world has declined for decades, so the productivity gap between the most and least productive farms and farmers continues to grow.

Curiously, even as we neglect investing in agriculture, the information and communications technology revolutions have made it ever easier to bring information and education to everyone. Cell phones are everywhere and tablet computers are not far behind, permitting even the literacy gap to be bridged.

There is ample room to increase productivity on the least productive lands in an ecologically sustainable way using modern scientific advances, such as the genetic modification of plants and animals with molecular tools. Bridging the technology gap is the easy part. Mustering the political will to invest in this most basic of human needs and overcome prejudices against the use of modern science in agriculture is harder.


By; Nina Fedoroff