It is often said that we have to gear up for feeding 9 billion people in 2050, or before, and that genetically modified (GM) crops must be deployed more widely in order to provide sufficient food. Well, that would be nice for the companies that own the genes of the GM products that are sold into the market, and on the surface, it makes sense to make agriculture more efficient. It might also feed people who would otherwise go hungry, which would reduce suffering. All of these benefits have associated problems which cast doubt on the GM proposition for feeding a growing human population, but there is one problem that I believe trumps them all: What happens when we get to 9 billion?
Trying to solve the problem of feeding 9 billion people by increasing food production instead of working out how to stop the population growing is like shovelling more coal into the run-away train’s boiler instead of trying to slow it down. After all, there were 3 billion humans in 1960, which doubled to 6 billion in 1999, taking only 30 years. Today, 12 years later, we are approaching 7 billion. The rate of increase is slowing, but more people produce more babies. If 6.87 billion humans on the planet today produce enough babies to result in a net population increase of 230,000 per day, 9 billion logically results in an increase of over 300,000 per day, meaning that the population will go on increasing to 10, 11 and 12 billion until there’s no more room to put anyone.
Of course, that won’t happen as there has to come a point at which even the most efficient food production can’t feed the population, so what happens then? Are people going to be left to starve? Imagine the carnage that will result from conflict and wars over resources! Or maybe at that point (9 billion), humanity will magically start to try to control population growth. Well, if managing the human population has to be done at some point, why not start now when the problem will be 2 billion easier to deal with, and give the planet a chance?
We have to face the fact that humans are, and always have been, too good at reproducing: we like sex and more of us tend to survive to reproductive age than ever before. We also live longer which means that there is pressure at both ends for the population to increase. How much more humane to think the problem through then decide together how to deal with it so that increasing conflict, suffering and disease can be avoided? Some of my cleverest friends think that nature will control the situation through disease: do we have be satisfied with such a solution?
This fatalistic and cynical scenario implies that there is nothing to be done, and that we may as well carry on as usual while we await the inevitable. The risks of this are hideous: pressure on food and mineral resources will result in wars, and there is always the danger that rogue politicians will use war to reduce the population of the opposition in order to secure more for their own; some governments will try to reduce population by coercion and fascism; billions will live in increasingly harsh conditions suffering starvation, disease and lack of water.
The answer? Sadly the answer is almost certainly impossible as it would require all the major governments of the World to take a long-term view and persuade their people to start acting responsibly and reduce their rate of reproduction whilst also reducing damage to their environment. It would require a recognition by religious people that it is better to look after the human beings on the planet now than to keep producing more and more in the name of ‘the sanctity of life’. If human life really is sacred then we should ensure that every person on the Earth can live according to the United Nations principles of human rights: with dignity and reasonable comfort.
The implications of this idea are that economic growth ceases to be the main drive, and that the World’s resources are shared more evenly. It ain’t gonna happen as short term interests, political expediency and belief that you are right and others are wrong will continue until the whole system breaks down. The odd thing is that, in the event of a global disaster wiping out nine tenths of the human population or more, the remainder would approach the task of rebuilding their lives with optimism and energy….. what goes around comes around.