Joel Bourne is an agronomist and farmer’s son who decided to go into journalism rather than farming. He edited farming trade magazines and then wrote for National Geographic. While covering the food crisis in 2008, he began to see the strain on our food systems, and The End of Plenty: The race to feed a crowded world is the result. “Producing food for more than 9 billion people without destroying the soil, water, oceans, and climate will be by far the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced” he writes.
Over the next few decades, we will add two billion people to the world’s population. Many of us will be richer and looking forward to enjoying more meat and dairy. We’re also expecting biofuels to be part of our energy mix. Put together, we’re looking at a doubling of world food production.
This would be challenge enough, but we have a number of processes working against us. Climate change we know about, though we don’t yet know what its impact on farming will be. Studies suggest higher temperatures will cut yields dramatically. Water shortages are another problem, as aquifers that feed many farming regions are depleted. Another is the loss of arable land from erosion, perhaps the most serious of the handful of environmental crises we never hear about (see nitrogen pollution, ocean acidification).
At this point somebody usually starts muttering about how Malthus was wrong and that the Green Revolution will save us, but Bourne has little time for these arguments. Like the Limits to Growth report, most people don’t know what Malthus actually said and dismiss his work without reading it. And secondly, the Green Revolution has run its course, and now comes with a host of dependencies and unforeseen consequences. Population has been growing faster than grain production since 1986, the year the world hit ‘peak grain’.
The first half of the book looks at where we are now, taking in the story of the Green Revolution, our growing understanding of famines, and soaring demand for meat in China. Biofuels, speculation and the 2008 food crisis also feature, all told as part popular science, part travelogue, as Bourne visits key locations and talks to experts, farmers and politicians.
The second half looks at solutions, with chapters on farming the oceans, on GM crops, organic agriculture, and opportunities in the Ukraine – one of the few places where there is serious potential to expand production, as many communist era farms lie fallow. The chapters on GM and organic food are particularly good, presenting both sides of what are often contentious and emotive subjects. Bourne deals with many of the preconceptions and refuses to rule things in or out. As he sees it, “there is no single solution to the looming food crisis”, and “we’re going to need every tool and technique we can find to put food on the world’s table.”
The End of Plenty is a finely balanced book, serious without being depressing, meticulously researched without sacrificing accessibility. It’s full of stories as well as facts. Bourne describes people and places well, and the book is full of characters – many of them pioneers with inspiring ideas, both high tech and low tech. I’ve already mentioned Henri de Laulanié’s work in Madagascar, and there are several other projects I’ll be writing about at some point – but don’t wait for that. This is a great book and well worth picking up. If Bourne is right that feeding the world in the 21st century is “the biggest collective hurdle humanity has ever faced”, then we owe it to ourselves to get informed.