ALAN GUEBERT: Farmers feed the world, but how many people?
Our good friends at Progressive Farmer magazine filled 15 pages of their September issue with a well-researched, well-written "special report" on "Feeding the World."
The four-color, four-story package hits all the humane highlights U.S. farmers and ranchers expect in these stories of manifest destiny when "the world will look to the U.S. to help stock the global food pantry."
The report's central premise is bold: "With dwindling natural resources, changing climate and already stressed environment, will the world's farmers and ranchers be able to... boost food production by 70 percent over the next 40 years to satisfy... more than 9 billion people?"
Fifteen pages later I have some idea of the answer. What I didn't find anywhere in all the facts, figures, photos and words, however, is any discussion on population.
How do we in American agriculture constantly chew over how much food the world might need in the future and never once get within a hoe's length of discussing population?
On its face, be it brown, yellow, black, red, white or whatever, population is one entire side of the two-sided food coin. As such, any discussion on any aspect of food availability in any future decade or century must include a discussion on population.
So why don't we ever talk about it?
"We don't like to talk about population," explains Rob Dietz, co-author of "Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources," "because these conversations quickly go to topics dominated by personal views such as liberty, happiness and life. That makes us uncomfortable so we avoid them."
The other big reason we don't talk about population, notes Dietz, is that whenever society confronts a complex problem it "almost always looks at the supply side of the equation and rarely examines the consumption side."
Fresh water shortage? We'll lasso icebergs and tow 'em south rather than develop conservation practices.
Food shortage? We'll re-engineer nature, mine more fossil resources and burn all the Earth's rain forests to grow more feed grains for livestock (or ethanol) before we even consider the topic of population size, growth and sustainability.
"It's what we do," says Dietz. "We think about how we can grow our way out of a problem and rarely consider how we can economize to solve the problem."
We should consider both sides, because what if the magazine's 9-billion-people-by-2050 population figure, a United Nation's projection based on current demographics, is wrong by, say, a billion people either way?
"It changes everything immediately and immensely," he says. "But that still doesn't mean we'll talk about it."
Wow. Is that stubbornness or arrogance?
It can't be ignorance because, like our great-grandparents, we know we will leave heirs who will need clothing and food, water and soil, air and land centuries into the future, right?
Of course, but the magazine, like us, is more comfortable addressing production, not population. "The world greets 219,000 new people every day," or the equivalent of "one Britain every year," offers one expert.
So, if we assume that "most of this new population is from Asia and consuming 1,200 calories a day" (the average American consumes twice that amount, 2,375 calories per day) ... "that means we'll need the equivalent of 14,600 new acres a day."
That's going to be a problem, and it will be an even bigger problem if any of these new consumers want to eat like you and me in 2050 and 2450.
What the magazine doesn't explain, however, is if any solution can be found in examining the other side of the equation. According to several international sources, says Dietz's co-author of "Enough is Enough," Dan O'Neill, an economist at the University of Leeds, women around the world say they have a combined 80 million unwanted pregnancies per year.
Coincidentally, O'Neill notes in a 30-minute, video introduction to the book (http://steadystate.org/discover/enough-is-enough/), that's nearly equal to today's annual population growth worldwide.
But you and I really can't talk about it.