The short answer is yes. Experts predict a global food shortage that will hit by mid-century, threatening the lives of hundreds of millions of people. And they base this conclusion on some pretty stark facts.
We currently slaughter 56 billion farmed animals every year to feed Earth’s 7.1 billion inhabitants. The diets of the rising middle class in China and India, who are eating more meat, is contributing to a far higher demand, which in turn requires more corn and soybeans to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens.
By 2050 there will be 9.2 billion people on the planet, and the UN predicts that food production must increase by 70 percent to meet demand. New farming techniques do not overcome the fact that there isn’t enough land, water or genetic diversity to meet demand.
So what we’re doing is not sustainable, and it wreaks havoc on the environment. As we stand, over 35 percent of the planet’s ice-free land is used for food production. This has been the greatest driver of deforestation, associated biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution. This in turn leads to unpredictable and extreme droughts and crop failures, rising food prices and water shortages.
Agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined. The Nature Climate Change commission has warned that if we don’t change the way we eat and farm, we will raise the temperature of the planet by two degrees Celsius. An increase of this magnitude, is dangerous because it crosses the red line that scientists predict is the tipping point where the impact is irreversible.
“The UN predicts that food production must increase by 70 percent to meet demand in 2050”
To help address this grave problem, Expo Milan 2015, is focused around the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”. The aim is to highlight solutions that will guarantee healthy, food for everyone while respecting the planet. It will also champion the UN’s Zero Hunger Challenge, a global call-to-action, aimed at the 795 million people who struggle with hunger.
The potential solutions under discussion come in many forms. By 2050, close to 80 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Vertical farming, greenhouses built in skyscrapers to cultivate plant life, have already been pioneered, though the costs are still prohibitive.
Lab-grown meat omits the problem of mass farming. The first petri-dish burger was cultivated in 2013 by Maastricht University’s Mark Post, who made the protein from stem cells extracted from a cow. But Post predicts it will take another ten years before cultured meat can be mass produced.
Jonathan Foley, a director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, wrote a paper for American Scientist where he outlined other measures. These include reducing crop-based biofuels, increasing yields in places like Africa where there is scope for improvement, using water and fertiliser more efficiently, and cutting down on food waste.
But the big game changer is reducing demand for meat. Right now, 36 percent of the calories produced by the world’s crops are used for animal feed while only 12 percent of those calories contribute to the human diet. Eating the grain directly would be lot more efficient and beneficial to the environment: a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 20 pounds CO2 equivalent, 30 square feet of forested land and 45 pounds of grain.
There is one more solution, though it might take a while to catch on. Insects are a highly efficient source of protein and have been eaten by people for centuries. They’re common in the diets of two billion people across Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Cultural differences (and we’re assuming taste) prevent the idea from spreading to the Western world.
But the reality is that it might soon be time to start incorporating some witchetty grubs into your tea time recipes to help save the planet. Veggie burgers seem a little more appealing now, don’t they?