Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thoughts on Feeding 10 Billion People

My friend Kevin Nelstead posted some good questions about feeding our growing world population.  I added a long comment, reproduced here because I hope people see an example of how to work from biblical principles to address complex issues.


Kevin, before answering your questions, I think it’s appropriate to back up and create some context – biblical principles and pertinent observations.
From a biblical worldview, I propose these principles:
· Persons, being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and having an eternal soul, are significant and of infinite worth.
· God gave mankind the responsibility of being stewards of His creation (Genesis 1:28). Being a steward means making decisions and working through trade-offs. Stewardship does not mean ownership; only God “owns” creation (Psalm 50).
· Sin affects both people and the planet (see Romans 8:22); neither is perfect.
· God is sovereign over His creation, but mankind cannot entirely tame it or control it. We do not live in perfect harmony with creation (Genesis 3:17-19).
· The Creation we see today is not eternal, it will be remade in God’s fullness of time (Revelation 21:1-5). People’s souls are eternal, and therefore take priority over creation when there are conflicts.
· We do not know when this age ends (Ecclesiastes 8:7; Mark 13:32); we cannot assume it is either a short time or a long time when making stewardship decisions.
Pertinent observations, though not strictly biblical:
· Natural systems have resilience, but also breaking points. We have a very poor record of understanding the limits of systems or predicting how they behave. We tend to miserably under-estimate or over-estimate effects of changes and trends. All simulation models are wrong. Some are useful.
· People have imaginative and creative powers to solve complicated and complex problems. Malthusian projections have been wrong partly because they did not take into account human versatility/ingenuity, tremendous improvements in agricultural productivity and the logistics of moving food and purifying water.
· Human beings are terrible at estimating risk and responding realistically to it.
· War, ethnic politics, and foolish pride have caused more hunger than actual lack of food on the planet. The starvation deaths because of distribution challenges of available food and lack of clean water are avoidable.
· Charity support models have not been effective when continued for long periods of time, because they invite corruption and eliminate the incentives for individuals and groups to create sustainable infrastructure. There are many lessons from aid given to Africa over the last 50 years.
· Central planning models fail, and fail worse as systems grow more complex. There are many variables we cannot control and barely influence. We often confuse leading and lagging indicators. We have at best incomplete historical data, of varying usefulness. Production models tied to individual economic and political liberty have sustainably produced the most food over many years.
Thoughts with respect to food production:
· The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is calling for a 70% increase in food production by the year 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people. The Eastern Hemisphere is both where most of the population growth will occur and where productivity challenges are greatest.
· I believe we can produce food to 50% more people than live today – it will take concerted efforts on my fronts, but I believe it can be done. We need progress in plant breeding, animal management, and agronomic practices. The amount of arable land is roughly constant now – so improving yield productivity is our best hope. More people moving to urban centers means longer distances to move food.
· The best approach to feeding the world is a rich mix of all kinds of farming. There are places in the world where large-scale monoculture is feasible, and many more places where it is not. I think commercial interests and individual liberty will continue to drive a rich mix. Central planning efforts will distort markets and perpetuate inefficient approaches.
Success will require contributions from For-profit and Non-profit entities, both small and large. There is room for all – and I believe all have specific valuable roles and unique contributions in feeding the world.
· Water is crucial. Read the excellent book, “The Big Thirst.” The problems of sufficient clean water are manageable.
· Land management is crucial. Farming on marginal land creates problems which need to be solved later.
· It would be possible for the US to feed itself from smaller, organic farms. But… perhaps 50% of the population would need to be involved, rather than the 2% on farms today. And there would no grains, fruits, and meats to export.
· Plant breeders are making strides with both transgenic and non-transgenic crops, and harvestable yield continues to climb. I find it difficult to imagine doubling or tripling yields without some GMO.
· Government policies can promote progress or hamper it. I personally believe the intellectual basis driving many government policies is unbiblical, favoring the environment over people, and by default assuming humans ARE the problem.
· My hypothesis is that God has distributed food production potential across the continents so that we would have to work together and build relationships. Regions which have the capacity to produce surpluses should produce surplus to feed others. It makes sense economically, too.
Answering your other questions:
We are fulfilling the mandate “be fruitful and multiply” – but I don’t have the revelatory insight to say “We’ve fulfilled it. Stop.” History teaches us to be confident that some of the solutions to our challenges will be created by people yet to be born!
Christians have the most helpful worldview for working through the stewardship issues and simultaneously valuing human life and individual liberty. Therefore I pray regularly for more believers to follow Jesus into agriculture and food production and government agencies which oversee them.
*Note: I’m employed by a leading multinational agriculture corporation. My comments do not in any way represent the company’s position.

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