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Column: Humans, humans everywhere

15/07/2011

This week, Monday 11 July, we witnessed world population day. It wasn’t a big event, but it probably should have been.

The United Nations expects the world population to hit seven billion this year – sometime around October. Just yesterday I remember the popular rumour was that we were going to top six billion and the mill wondered what that would mean for planet earth. In turns out that it didn’t really mean much; we are all still here and still consuming with no restrictions. But when the UN draws another line at 2045 for nine billion, one does need to ask – does this population explosion matter and when will it stop?

I don’t find it very scary to contemplate. If all the people on the planet stood side by side, say with a good area of movement around them, they would only fill up an area about the size of Rhode Island, USA, according to National Geographic – that’s about 2500 square kilometres. And if we wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder we would only need about 800 square kilometres – about the size of Los Angeles. Considering that we have about 2,500,000 square kilometres of habitable land on earth – no, I am not worried. Experts suggest that the population explosion will taper off at about 9 billion – we would have reached our peak apparently.

But there is a bigger issue here and one that has been hitting the headlines with increasing frequency – food security. With an average of a billion people going hungry every day and the potential for that number to be two billion by 2050, the increasing population is something scary to contemplate. Sure there are other factors to consider such as economic ideology, growing urbanisation, increasing climate change and the destruction of suitable farm land through various means – but put all of that aside for now. Can the earth support nine billion people consuming 2000 calories a day?

I would suspect yes – with a healthy dose of good management and technology we can greatly increase our crop yields and properly deliver it across the globe. But can there be another green revolution? High-yield seeds, irrigation, pesticides and fertilisers have enabled grain production to double the last few decades. Through the use of further innovation and a dose of bio-technology, we can do it again (I will leave writing about bio-technology at this time and wait until I am ready for a fight).

Match those developments with improved waste management and I think we are well on our way to a sustainable future. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says industrialised countries waste some 222 million tons of food a year, about as much as sub-Saharan Africa’s net food production a year, that includes South Africa. Sort out the wastage, and suddenly the world has more than enough food.

If one recognises that many of the reasons behind people starving has less to do with a shortage of food and more to do with bad political and economic management, we immediately open new doors for solutions.

In short, I don’t think the problem is so insurmountable but changes do need to be made. There isn’t space in this column to speculate but world management will have to look different by 2045. While 9 billion people may be sustainable, current practices are not. Resources, inequality, use of irreplaceable materials for building, waste management – we have all the ideas already, we have the technology already. So what’s the problem?

Breed at your heart’s content.

 

 

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