Friday, August 10, 2012

Feeding World Will Take All of Us

By John Seager, Population Connection President

American farmers feed the world. But what happens to the world if they no longer can because of events beyond their control?

This might not be a hypothetical question much longer.

America’s growers are being devastated by the worst drought since the 1950s – and the hottest summer since 1936. Instead of the record corn crop farmers planted, we’re looking at record losses. A map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that the breadbasket of the nation is over-baked indeed.

Drought is ravaging corn crops in the Midwest. (Paul Bica/flickr)
As Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, told the British paper, The Guardian: “Although the world was hoping for a good U.S. harvest to replenish dangerously low grain stocks, this is no longer in the cards. World carryover stocks of grain will fall further at the end of this crop year, making the food situation even more precarious.”

It’s not just our disaster. Hungry mouths around the world depend on our farmers.

In the past, the world has relied on advancing technologies – the so-called “Green Revolution.”  New seed varieties and additional fertilizer and irrigation allowed for amazing increases in yield. But those increases in yield are slowing down. The best land is already in production. Returns on using more fertilizer are diminishing and subject to rising oil prices as concerns over fossil fuel emissions mount. And as the water needs of cities grow, the cost to irrigate crop land will keep on climbing.  

Meanwhile, our human population keeps growing. There are 150 new mouths to feed every minute. Most of that growth is happening in the least-developed nations – the nations least able to feed themselves.

Keeping everyone fed – and avoiding a global disaster – is going to take a worldwide effort. American farmers will do everything they can – they always have. We can help them out by making sure every woman who wants to plan her family has the ability to do so.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, there are 222 million women in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy but have no access to affordable and appropriate contraception. Right here in the United States, nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended. By meeting the need for family planning, we’ll be able to slow population growth, reduce the economic strain on individual families and help ensure that our farmers can continue to feed the world.

The United States has long supported voluntary international family planning – we invested $610 million in 2012 alone. But opposition is increasing in some political quarters. Reducing that investment now would be disastrous for families and our fiscal future. Estimates are that every dollar invested in family planning saves governments up to $6 in public service costs. Contraception pays for itself.

Americans will keep seeking agriculture innovations.  But in the meantime, we need to keep investing in the world’s women. Because when women do well, so do families, communities and nations, and everyone can be fed.


  1. I read something which said that, if the land we use for ethanol were used for people food, we could feed and additional 800 million people. An additional 800 million could be feed with the land we use to grow animal feed. The 2nd part was written in the late 1990s. Still, there have been something like 980 million to 1 billion people undernourished every year for about 4 years now.

    Also, world grain production has been exceeded by consumption for the last 8 out of 12 years (USDA), and while the number of tons of grain production continues to rise, the rate of increase is decreasing as the green revolution winds down and farm land is taken over by urbanization, and per capita water decreases.

    I suppose when we reach our next billion, in about 12-13 years from now, there will then be 2 billion hungry unless we stop wasting good farmland on ethanol and animal feed. Even if we did, since about half the world's population is under age 25, population momentum will almost certainly guarantee a population of 10 billion some time in the next 60 years. Its my educated guess (having seen it reach 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999, and 7 billion in 2011) that we will reach 8 billion in 2024, 9 billion in 2038, and 10 billion in 2054. This is an additional 1 billion people added every 12-14 years.

  2. Dear Karen,
    I'd love to read more about the information you cited - what's your source?