Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Earth Can Feed Us

Hugo Osvald, The Earth Can Feed Us, George Allen and Unwin 1966

Hugo Osvald was an academic, politician and writer deeply involved in food security issues back in the fifties and sixties. A professor of crop science at the Swedish Agricultural University, he was also a member of the Swedish parliament from 1948-1963. His book The Earth Can Feed Us is an important look at food security issues and the plans made to confront those issues just prior to the Green Revolution.
As you can see from the title of his book, Hugo was actually fairly optimistic about the ability of humans to feed a population of six billion or so (about double the population at the time he wrote this book). As he says in his preface:

I have also refrained from giving terrifying descriptions of the situation in the over-populated countries, with their starving and diseased populations, or detailed accounts of the mistakes mankind has made in exploiting natural resources. For if we want to improve the situation, it is, in my opinion, necessary first of all to show what possibilities there are of increasing food production. Mankind must be given a gleam of hope, a chance to believe in a brighter future, if it is to make the necessary effort. Otherwise it will become discouraged and apathetic.1

Hugo provides an overview of the current condition of the food supply circa 1966, and what he sees isn't good. “The sad truth is, that more than half the world's population of more than three milliard people has not enough to eat.2” He also did not think, after reviewing the numbers, that even with perfect distribution there would be enough calories to go around at the then current rate of production. Whether there is currently enough to go around is still one of those open questions; if you cancel biofuel production in the US and quit feeding so much livestock on so much corn, there might be enough calories produced. But practically there will never be enough, if only because those that have access to food are in no hurry to give it up to eat a 2300 calorie/day diet high in grains and low in animal protein.

But Hugo is nothing if not optimistic.
The question of the greatest interest for us all is, therefore: Is it possible to produce enough food quality food for everyone? Fortunately this question can be answered with an unqualified yes! But let me add at once that to this 'yes' is attached an inescapable condition; that mankind comes to its senses and utilizes the earth's resources rationally!3

Hugo, provides de rigeur overview of the history of famine, food production and distribution, and then, most interestingly, a chapter titled Food Production or Birth Control. Hugo is pretty clear-eyed in his view of how difficult a sell birth control would be in the developing world. And that in the developed world, it wasn't quite as important as families were already smaller. Today,it's clear that the simplest way to limit family size is economic development—the link between rising standards of living and smaller families is pretty well established—but we're facing a carrying capacity problem on Spaceship Earth where we can't afford the development we already have, let alone more.
Hugo quotes from a lecture (Science and Technology in the Fight against Hunger) delivered by JosuĂ© de Castro in which “[h]e stated that, owing to the recent progress in agricultural science, it is now possible to increase the production of food so that it outstrips the growth of population.” “Malthus' theory was hereby refuted,” claims Hugo, and “[i]t is quite certain that, in the near future, it will be possible to achieve even more startling results than those which have been achieved in agriculture hitherto”.

Well, while it is true that the subsequent Green Revolution did mean that production of food did, for a period, outstrip the growth in population, and food aid programs meant that a bit more food reached those in need, current conditions might indicate that Malthus wasn't quite as firmly refuted as Hugo seemed to think. Particularly when faced with the prospect of almost feeding nine billion only a couple of decades from now.

Hugo offers up a nine-point program for increasing world food production:

    1. Bringing hitherto uncultivated regions of the earth into use.
    2. Taking steps to prevent erosion.
    3. Redistributing cultivated land in many countries.
    4. Controlling the supply of water either through irrigation or through drainage (in many cases both are needed).
    5. Supplying the soil with calcium and plant nutrients (artificial fertilizers).
    6. Applying modern cultivation techniques.
    7. Mechanizing agricultural work; among other things, reducing the costs of production.
    8. Plant breeding to improve the cultivated plants in all countries in yield, quality, resistance to disease, etc.
    9. Controlling plant diseases, pests, weeds, etc.4

Together, these nine points formed the basis for the subsequent “Green Revolution.” And they worked. At least, they worked for a while, a period during which the world population doubled, yields briefly increased, peasants were driven (often forcibly) off the land so it could be consolidated into giant farms, plant breeding stagnated (until the advent of genetic modification and the patenting of commercially-linked varieties), local production for local consumption was crippled, and food-miles skyrocketed. But, to be fair, we have made some gains; the proportion who are food-insecure or starving hasn't become any worse, and may actually have improved marginally.
It certainly didn't play out the was Hugo Osvald imagined it. He wrote of “bringing hitherto uncultivated regions of the earth into use,” and then followed up with practical techniques. When he discussed opening up the tropical rain-forest, he recognized that the soil was thin and impoverished, and recommended strip cultivation; where a thin strip would be opened up, farmed briefly, and the forest allowed to naturally regenerate while a new strip is opened up. Well, we've seen how that panned out in the Amazonian rain-forest. It was quickly realized that it would be easier to strip massive areas and then abandon them a couple of years later, completely ignoring the restoration of the land. Hugo also missed taking into account the food production already in place in the rain-forest.
Osvald had a good sense of the effect agriculture has on the land, particularly in the effect of removing trees from the landscape. He writes of New Zealand's experiences with clearing trees from the land, and in five to ten years, the land had been replaced by a ravine ten to fifteen metres deep. He then quotes a (moderately-famous) speech by Professor Lowdermilk who proposed an eleventh commandment:
“Thou shalt inherit the earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up and thy forests from desolation, and thous shalt protect the hills from over-grazing by thy herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail in this food stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile, stony ground or wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from the face of the earth.”
Not bad for 1953. Of course, we have failed in keeping that commandment over and over again throughout history, and the result has always been that the descendants of those who failed to observe have decreased and lived in poverty or perished from the face of the earth: Babylon, Greece, Rome. So the question Osvald asks early in his book--”[t]he question of the greatest interest for us all is, therefore: Is it possible to produce enough food quality food for everyone? Fortunately this question can be answered with an unqualified yes! But let me add at once that to this 'yes' is attached an inescapable condition; that mankind comes to its senses and utilizes the earth's resources rationally!”--gets an answer we may not really like. The lesson we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. Had we listened to all of what Hugo Osvald was saying, we might be a fair bit further ahead than we are. But economic pressure and our perpetual shortsightedness mean that we take the easy way out, the quick fix, the path that leads to more rather than fewer problems. And unless we can escape that (and history suggests we will not), it doesn't matter how many brilliant thinkers, great ideas, or how much we know, we're not going to make it at anything like our current population levels. Ultimately, Malthus and shortsightedness will refute Osvald.
1Hugo Osvald, The Earth Can Feed Us, George Allen and Unwin 1966. page 7.
2Ibid. Page 16.
3Ibid. Page 16.
4Ibid. Page 56.

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