World Futures: Feeding Humanity

Los Alamos World Futures Institute

During the past 20 columns, 18 areas worthy of study regarding future needs were considered, generally independently. It is appropriate now to consider a few questions related to multiple items on the list. Let’s get started.

In 1798, The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, examined population growth and growth of the available food supply. He believed that population growth is exponential while growth of the food supply is arithmetic. In such a world, a point where the population’s food demand exceeds the available food supply is inevitable. In essence, unchecked population growth will continue until checked by the lack of food.

Today one can find many people in disagreement with Malthus principally arguing that the growth of the available food supply also is exponential. In 2008, this challenge to Malthus was addressed by Jeffrey D. Sachs in a Scientific American article. His last line: “Have we beaten Malthus? After two centuries, we still do not really know.”

According to the website, the US resident population in 1800 was 5,308,483 and the world population was around one billion. The current world population is about 7.5 billion and the current growth rate is around 1.11 percent per year. At this rate, the world population in approximately 63.4 years will be around 15 billion people (about year 2080).

The same worldometer source shows a projected population of 9.725 billion in 2050 or 10 billion in 2056, a significant difference because of a projected declining birth rate.

Population growth in a region on Earth is determined by three factors: the number of births per year (or birth rate); the number of deaths per year (or death rate); and migration (immigration and migration). But on a global scale there is no migration, so population change is determined by the birth and death rates.

Can we grow and distribute enough food to support the world’s growing population?  For simplicity, let us use the value of 10 billion people in 2056. According to “Let’s Put Everybody in Texas,” the US lifestyle requires about 24 acres of habitable land per person. So in 2056, we only need 240 billion acres of habitable land and all is well. But Earth has only about 16 billion acres of habitable land and 37 billion acres in total (57,308,738 square miles). Using the current estimated world population of 7.5 billion people, we only need 180 billion acres for everyone to live the American lifestyle.

According to Farmland LP, it takes one acre of arable land to feed a person for one year. So in 2056, we will need only 10 billion acres for food production leaving us 6 billion acres for human space as long as we give up the American lifestyle. Problem solved, or is it?

  • How much energy is needed for the farming?
  • At one pound per day per person (very conservative) how do you distribute 10 billion pounds of perishable food stuffs per day?  Or do you can it?
  • Assuming you can it, do you do it at the source, at the destination, or somewhere in between?
  • What do you do with the waste – both from pre-consumption  product processing and post product consumption processing?
  • Do we need to modify the human genome to reduce food consumption (as well as tinkering with birth and death rates)?
  • How do we increase food production so we need less than one acre per person? Change the diet? Farm better? How?
  • Do metropolitan and megapolitan areas become capsules?  What is really needed?
  • How do we do business?  What is the value of money or is real money in the black food market?
  • How do we govern?  Can a free market produce enough food?

These questions, related to the list of 18, are but a sample of what we need to answer. If you want to pursue the topic more, it is suggested that you review Human Population Dynamics at The documents that begin at the link have little to do directly with the questions posed above, but rather discuss demographic change and transition that affect and influence solutions.

In future columns a few issues will be explored demonstrating integration of need is essential.

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