It's hard to have a discussion about feeding the world without the "9 billion people by 2050" statistic popping up. But for some, even this ubiquitous fact fails to cut through the cloud of personal politics.
Samuel Fromartz, a Washington D.C. journalist, writes in The Atlantic Monthly: "We don't need to grow more food. Instead, we need to know the world's future population - and what these people will be eating."
He points out that on the low side of estimates, global population by 2050 could stop at 8 billion, and then even start declining. The need for advanced technology in farming, he implies, will not be as important as we thought.
But Fromartz takes it a step further and turns his aim directly at biotech. GMOs, he contends, have not been used to "feed the world." Rather, he says, "we have used them to bring down the cost of industrial meat production and incentivize a transition to a meat-centric diet."
He even goes so far to say that increasing grain yields is part of the problem. "GMOs arguably are making matters worse," he says, "by fueling the production of more animal feed and food-competing biofuels."
Fromartz's logic is backwards. It's not farmers incentivizing the rest of the world to consume meat and feed grains. It's the rest of the world incentivizing farmers with their purchases. Thanks to globalization and rising wealth throughout the world – especially in rising economies like India and China –more people are demanding meat and dairy in their daily diets because they can afford it.
The rising trend for more meat, dairy and feed grains is not driven by farmers, then, but by billions of wealthier consumers. Still, Fromartz makes the mistake in thinking farmers can reverse this trend. By decreasing grain production, he implies, we will persuade the world to eat less.
Population – A Steaming Locomotive
But how do you incentivize a person who just saw an increase in their wealth to not improve their diet, even by just a little? Just in China, if everyone decided to have just one more egg per year, that would require an increase of 1.3 billion eggs, which in turn requires 5 million more laying hens consuming more than 300,000 tons of soy meal per year. That translates to 285,000 more soybean acres to be grown somewhere in the world.
What if each Chinese citizen decided to eat just one more egg every day? That would require over 100 million more acres if yields do not improve.
Then, take into account all the other emerging economies like India, Russia and Brazil.
The numbers are mind-boggling, but Fromartz gives no intelligent discussion of the matter. Rather, he simply lays the blame at the feet of farmers and biotech. His flawed logic leads him to believe that farmers are at fault, and that standing idly in front of the train will stop it from coming.
It could not be further from the truth. Without improvements in yield, the increase in production would come at the expense of forests, wildlife habitats and other parts of the planet currently not under cultivation.