Joel K. Bourne Jr. has made a career out of writing about the environment and agriculture. For many years, he was on staff as a senior editor at National Geographic magazine, and he still writes for the magazine and other national publications. Bourne, who graduated from NC State in 1985 with a degree in agronomy, has released a new book that takes a look to see if food supply can keep up with population growth around the globe.
We caught up with him to discuss The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World, and the challenges we face in years ahead.
Are we running out of food? If you look at all the estimates, we are gradually using more of our grains than we are producing, more years than not. There’s a fundamental imbalance in production and consumption, and so if you translate that along with some of the estimates of what climate change is going to be and is already doing to some yields, then it puts the world’s food and grain perspective in fairly stark relief and it’s very worrisome.
How did you get interested in writing about this intersection of food production and population? Well, I’m an aggie from NC State! When I was working at National Geographic, I did a lot of environmental reporting. About 10 years ago, we started looking at and assigning stories — many of which I wrote — that dealt with this divide between agriculture, environment and wildlife. It included everything from biofuels and its impact on food supplies to climate change and its impact on global crop yields. When the world’s population hit 7 billion, it was one of those inflection points. Population continues to rise although birth rates are falling, but crop production is stagnating. The great advances of the green revolution now seem to have stalled.
Should readers come away from your book hopeful or terribly depressed? I had a friend who read the first chapter and said he was scared to death. The challenges we have in front of us are serious, and there’s no single silver bullet that is going to save us. So what we are looking at is a doubling of our food production. We’re looking at a doubling of our water demand. We’re looking at doubling our meat consumption, which of course is incredibly grain intensive. We’re looking at doubling our transportation fuel consumption. This is not making food for our people but making fuel for our vehicles. And of course we have climate change, which is hammering our yields and causing these enormous weather events. We’ve always had these on occasion, but if you talk to the climate scientists, this is the new normal. What we’re facing is something that is very very serious, and it’s not just for people in the developing world. This is something that is going to hit home.
Do you have recommendations? In the back of the book, I’ve tried to come up with solutions, ways that we can go down paths that might ease the burdens and realign the supply-and-demand relationship. How do we increase supply? There is farmland in the Ukraine and in parts of sub-Saharan Africa that can be brought into production. It’s low-hanging fruit. There’s also food waste. Right now, we waste about 30 percent of our food, which gets spoiled. In the developed world, it’s mostly scraped off the table into the garbage can. In the developing world, it’s mostly spoilage in the field. So having those storage facilities would help tremendously. But the ultimate solution is to help these countries that still have such high fertility rates in South Asia and Africa make that demographic transition so that woman can only have the number of children they want and desire by making family-planning services available and affordable to everyone.
These are hard-as-hell solutions, but they are within our grasp. I referenced a study in the book that says if climate change continues and we hit a 4-degree Celsius increase by 2100, we can potentially lose half of our farmland, and this is when population is supposed to hit 11 billion. To me that prospect is truly terrifying.