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Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty- First Century

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Published: Fri, 10 Nov 2017

Is human originality enough to produce adequate amount of food to provide for the 10 billion people that are expected to live on Earth by 2050 without causing excessive damage to the environment? Vaclav Smil attempts to answer this question in this book; Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty- First Century

Vaclav Smil is a ‘Distinguished Professor Emeritus’ at the University of Manitoba, a member of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Additionally, in 2010, he was recorded amongst the top 100 global thinkers.

Vaclav Smil is regarded by many as an incredibly productive and resourceful author whose publications span over a plethora of related fields. Smil’s publications predominately reign over the areas of agriculture, food processing and production and human population. As well as being known for his knowledge pertaining to China, Smil work in the areas of crops, the general biosphere and fertilizers is acknowledged by several experts in their respective fields. Moreover, Smil is widely regarded as an informative author whose work focuses on informing its readers through the use of technical data combined with comprehensive reasoning and his own opinions.

There have been a significant number of evaluations pertaining to food production and its consumption in the face of today’s rapidly growing society. These evaluations tend to vary in their respective approaches depending on the field of study that their writers stem from. In this regard, biological and physical scientists normally attempt to base their arguments around the ‘carrying capacity’ system which is applied to yearly populations. These scientists can then tap into inquiries such as how many individuals can the Earth’s resources provide for. Economists, however, investigate the growth in the production of food over the course of several alongside recognizing policies and trends that have served as a basis for this growth and using this combined knowledge to make predictions of future food production. Vaclav Smil, being a geographer, utilizes the same concepts biological and physical scientists use in his book.

Smil, through his book, presents a case in which he advocates for future food demands to be met through the increase of efficiency rather than the increase of supply through additional inputs. Increasing efficiency, he argues, can not only be done through the more effective and efficient use of crop inputs, such as water and fertilizer but also by reducing the post- harvest losses suffered globally. Moreover, he reasons that these methods of increasing efficiency in the near future should be led by a desire to reduce the environmental impact of high- input agriculture and in doing so, will reduce strains on the environment.

Smil’s investigation allows him to arrive at a somewhat warily optimistic conclusion where he believes that a world population of ten billion as predicted by the UN to be the stabilizing human population can in fact be sufficiently fed without excessive damage to the biosphere through the means of a more efficient food system. This optimistic conclusion is predominately cemented by the concept of ‘economic slack’ existing in the present-day production structures and that the chance that this slack can be reduced is quite good. However, this reduction of ‘economic slack’ standpoint needs the challenging task of creating plant breeding and associated research capabilities in order to supply deliver original and effective equipment to deprived farmers

Smil wrote this book not only to inform readers but also to counter some of the arguments made by other authors who have also written to express their views on the problem of feeding the world in the near future. Smil, as is made evident through the arguments he presents in his book, does not share catastrophist or techno- optimist views, the latter of which advocate technology as the key for solving the dilemma. Smil argues that in an effort to gain public fear of the current state of agriculture and of the global food stock, catastrophists tend to emphasize and exacerbate relatively short and temporary periods of decline or stasis in order to express their concerns but these concerns, as Smil explains are often misplaced and that ‘perfectly non-catastrophic explanations such as weather and changing policies for fertilizer subsidies, support prices or diets’ can serve to counter most arguments catastrophists present. Smil does agree with catastrophists in the sense that population needs to be stabilized but this stability, according to Smil will happen eventually and the world will in fact be able to feed the individuals at this stable point with negligible impacts on the environment.

Smil does not make an effort to find a middle ground between the ‘catastrophes’ as he terms Lester Brown and Paul Ehrlich and ‘ebullient cornucopian’ as he calls Julian Simon like many expected but rather attempts a serious evaluation utilizing the best science applicable to the inquiries being dealt with.

First Chapter – ‘Reasons for concern’

Looks at the growing population.Even though its slowing dramatically, the UN predicts the world populatin wll reach 9.9 billion by 2050 in the medium – variant scenario, an increase of 48% from 1999. ‘Dietary transitions’, Smil argues will add to food demands. This phenomenon is where rising incomes created by economic growth in poor countries produce dramatic changes in diet.There is a decrease in staple grain consumption and a substantial increase in meat and other animal products consumed, accompanied by a rise in total fat consumption. In other words, even with the slowing of population growth, in addition to the continuing demand for staple commodities, the increased demand for foods such as milk, eggs, meat, vegetables, and so on will require continued growth in output.

Second Chapter

Appraises the biophysical basis of agriculture and stresses the importance of microbial ecology of the soil. Smil acknowledges the use and importance of synthetic fertilizers by stating that only food for 2-3 billion people could have been produced without them, depending on the diets of the general populations. Alternative or organic agriculture on a wide scale basis could help?This might be a solution but can argue against their respective uses and whether they will really help or not. C4 crops which include corn are more photosynthetically efficient than C3 crops that include wheat and rice. This is a solution – should we plant more corn? Availability of land, water and nutrients will be adequate on a global basis. However, regional disparities/ scarcities will be made much worse by anthropogenic climate change. Can link to the point of climate change impact on agriculture difficult to access

Third Chapter

Focuses on the environmental impacts of agriculture. Soil erosion and its effects on yield. Loss of topsoil is often cited as having a major negative impact on food- growing capacity, but how robust is the evidence that degradation- induced productivity losses are rising? The problem may be real and urgent in many regions; for example in large parts of Africa the annual soil degradation equates to millions of metric tons of grains and tubers lost per year. But from a global perspective, the losses may not be significant.

The view that emerges from Smil’s account is that the inputs and assumptions underlying calculations of global resources are in many cases debatable. The variations in estimates give comfort that the world as a whole probably has the resources to adapt to demand and produce sufficient food. ‘Fortunately there is nothing inevitable about excessive erosion’ (p. 78).

Qualitative soil degradation and how best to maintain soil productivity. Solution – Modern high yielding crop varieties are somewhat less sensitive to soil and climate conditions than the farmer- selected varieties- take advantage of this and plant more modern crop varieties. However, these modern crop varieties have not fully escaped the ‘Darwinian’ features associated with natural selection. This means that improved varieties suited to one region in India are not suited to another region.

Environmental pollution from pesticides and fertilizer. Even though Smil hyped it up, it can lead to negatives when used in excess. Nitrate concentrations are quite high in the Rhine and other major rivers in Europe. Smil points this out but fails to mention that the heavy fertilizer applications in Europe are encouraged by the subsidies of the Common Agriculture Policy. This failure to mention this fact stems from his reluctance to thread upon political waters.

It is difficult to predict the effect of global warming on agriculture due to its complexity and the dynamic nature of its impact.A solution – the yield loss due to heat and moisture stress maybe, at least, partly, offset by the enhancement of photosynthesis and higher water use efficiency.

Usually, books on world food prospects are influenced not only by their sources of information but also by then innate optimism/ pessimism of the author, often most apparent in chapters on the environmental changes wrought by agriculture. However, from this chapter, Smil emerges not only as a stern judge but as a long term optimist. For example, ‘there is no shortage of preventive measures for dealing with nearly all of these concerns’ (p 66)

Fourth Chapter

Here, Smil expresses the core of his vision that agricultural output can be increased through improved efficiency without additional inputs, except for knowledge and genetic enhancement. His ideas are similar in many regards to those of precision agriculture. Smil states that the primary task for agricultural research is not ‘to make every plant transgenic, but rather to come up with more precise solutions for farming’ (pp. 138-39).

Precision farming is information- intensive and involves optimizing the timing and amount of inputs. He focuses on the better use of fertilizer and water. Fertilizer can be used more efficiently with better timing and placement, recycling of crop residues and better crop rotation.It is estimated that around 15% of the potassium, 30% of the nitrogen and 40% of the phosphorous is replaced by fertilizers. However, there is a critical need to increase fertilizer use in sub- Saharan Africa. Soil fertilizer is declining there and crop yields falling because of insufficient use of fertilizer. African soil and rainfall make much of the continent subpar for growing food. Despite this, the price of fertilizer in Africa is often two to four times that of the world price. In other words, the region that probably needs fertilizer the most has to pay the most for it. This input problem cannot be fixed through Smil’s ideology, which is heavily against the increase of inputs to solve the dilemma of feeding the world. In order to lower the high prices of fertilizer which results in large because of poor infrastructure and trade networks that are not developed enough to create a low- cost and competitive market, one must invest in them.

There are enormous opportunities to improve the efficiency of water use. Possibilities include growing more water- efficient crops and water conservation practises such as reduced tillage. Unlike energy, water once used, can be reused after its quality is restore by appropriate treatment. There is a need to increase water supplies especially in some arid areas, but water harvesting and the use of saline water should be used extensively. Water is generally wasted because it is underpriced.

In India, payments for electricity for pump irrigation are by pump size at very low rates and there are many illegal hook-ups that make it free.

On the other hand, in Israel, about 60% of irrigation was by drip systems by 1990, with very high rates of efficiency. Which is a major reason water use could drop 30% and crop yields per unit of water application doubled. Reasons against drip irrigation

More, generally, what Smil is advocating is the substitution of increasingly plentiful capital and knowledge for increasingly scarce natural resources.

Fifth Chapter

Explores ways to improve animal efficiency of animal food production. Although consuming animal products is fundamentally inefficient compared to vegetarianism, in a fascinating examination of human evolution, Smil sees a case for 10- 20 kg of meat in the average annual diet of humans, a level which is far exceeded in affluent countries. Close to half of all cereal grains produced globally are now fed to animals. Smil calculates the feed efficiency of different animals per unit of edible product.The most efficient is milk, followed by herbivorous fish, eggs, and chicken, with beef being least efficient Eat and produce less beef?

Aquaculture – advocates. Fish yields on continental shelves is, on average two orders of magnitude higher, and that of ponds is ten times higher still. However, narrow genetic basis is a challenge to aquaculture: the practise is dominated by a handful of freshwater herbivores and the contribution from marine species rests on even fewer carnivores. Smil believes that transgenic fishes may offer many advantages by growing faster and by tolerating cooler or warmer waters. For example salman with an anti- freeze protein gene from the winter flounder is already available which allows them to survive is very cold environments

Sixth Chapter

Opportunities to reduce post- harvest losses, which may be as high as 40% and more for some African crops. Smil notes how little attention has been given to post- harvest losses and that there is not a single national or international organization that focuses exclusively on the topic. Insect pests and plant pathogens, which account for huge losses in some conditions should be a target. China for example, suffers heavily from post- harvest losses resulting from improper storage of crops (roughly one- seventh of its cereal harvest every year), low efficiency of animal feeding

Seventh Chapter

Discusses human nutrition needs and how our understanding of them has evolved. Global average per capita energy requirements are about 2000-2100 calories daily, much less than the estimated supply of 2800. So malnutrition is the result of unequal assess

Eighth Chapter

Examines the dietary transition in detail and considers what the available evidence suggests would be an optimum diet. Smil agrees with others who have concluded that traditional Mediterranean diets, with lots of complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables and moderate amounts of meat, are the healthiest.

Ninth Chapter

Deals with the question of ‘Who will feed China’ asked by Lester Brown by saying that ‘the Chinese will’. Smil makes it clear that China clearly has the potential to feed its future population. ‘A combination of well-proven economic and technical fixes, environmental protection measures, and dietary adjustments can extract enough food from China’s agroeconomic systems to provide decent nutrition during the next generation s without weakening the country’s environmental foundations.’ (p. 315)

China provides an excellent country to examine in detail because of the constraints faced, the widespread opportunities for improved efficiencies and the implications for the rest of the world leading to the idea of if China can do it, so can the rest of the world

Water shortage is becoming an increasing problem in Northern China and there are vast plans to move water from the South to the North. However, water in China is substrantially underpriced like in India and thus used wastefully. Smil has a wonderful example of water in Beijing costing only a fifth as much as in Winnipeg, which is his home and has plentiful water supplies.

Smil also provides ample evidence that the amount of farmland in China has been substantially undercounted, and hence the yields are lower than what they could be and the room for yield improvement is considerably greater

Smil appeals to the experience with the energy price increases in the 1970s to show that producers and consumers did reduce inefficiencies in energy production and use when price incentives were provided to them


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