Is humanity headed for a global food crisis? The author of the “Doomsday Book” warns…
Editor’s Note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire, taking a serious and entertaining world of possibilities for the world and the human race. He is also the author of “The Doomsday Book”.
RALEIGH- Let’s imagine that all of us, the readers of this Techwire column, have been appointed guardians of humanity on planet Earth. We call ourselves The High Council on Global Human Wellbeing (HCGHW) because we have one big goal: to improve the lives of all humans across the planet. We meet once a week on Zoom, and we have a screen that serves as our dashboard on the current state of the world.
If the HCGHW were to really exist, then when we look at the dashboard this week, we would see several regions around the world flashing bright red. These are hot spots that deserve our attention right now.
- A problematic point: millions of people in the Tigray region of Ethiopia are facing starvation due to a food and medical blockade in the region.
- Another hotspot is Afghanistan, where huge economic problems persist after the US withdrawal, and this week all secondary schools were closed to female students. Imagine a whole country (39 million inhabitants) where millions of people are hungry and no girl can go to secondary school.
- Another problematic point: scientists are frantically waving their arms about the extreme warming events that are happening simultaneously at both poles of the Earth right now. Potential issues surrounding these temperature extremes include faster sea level changes, melting permafrost, and the potential for dangerously high spring and summer temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere.
These three areas, and many others, are worth the detour.
Ukrainian invasion and food
The Ukraine crisis is another area of concern that is the subject of significant press at the moment. The Ukrainian city of Mariupol has disappeared. Mass destruction in several other major Ukrainian cities has created an estimated 3 million refugees (and growing) over the past month due to Russian aggression.
A doomsday scenario unfolds in Ukraine – and we’re watching live
Worse still: it is likely that the Ukrainian crisis will have major side effects on agriculture over the next year. The big concern is the global food supply and the effects Russia, Ukraine and China could have on it. Add in the wildcard from as-yet-unknown extreme weather during this year’s growing season, and the worst-case food scenario could become disastrous for up to a billion people on planet Earth.
To understand the potential food problem facing humanity this year, think about the total world population and then the total world food supply. We don’t normally think about things on this scale, but the HCGHW needs to have this perspective. Consider:
- In round numbers, the world’s human population today is about 8 billion people.
- The average human weighs 136 pounds. That might seem low to those of us who live in North America, where the average is 178 pounds. But in the world there are a lot of undernourished people and a lot more children, so the world average is 136 pounds.
- A healthy human diet requires a mix of grains, meats, nuts, fruits, vegetables, oils, etc.
If we assume the average person eats a total of 3 pounds of food every day, then the world eats 24 billion pounds of food every day (and that number ignores wasted and spoiled food). All of these different foods need to be raised, harvested, cleaned, prepared, transported, packaged and sold, amounting to 24 billion pounds of food every day around the world.
The problem that the HCGHW is currently addressing: what if one day there is not enough food for every human being on the planet? If the High Council is concerned about “human welfare” on a global scale, we can’t really have tens of millions starving on our watch.
Food shortages can occur in two ways:
- What if food becomes so expensive that the poorest cannot afford to buy enough food? In other words, what if there is enough food for everyone, but some people cannot afford it? In some poorer countries, people are already spending 50%, 60% or even 70% of their meager income on food. As food becomes more expensive, they may run out of money to buy it. By comparison, the average American spends 10% of their income on food.
- What if one day there were only 23 billion pounds of food instead of the 24 billion pounds needed for the day? What if it was 22 billion? Or 20? Under capitalism, without any government intervention, this scarcity will result in extreme price hikes. Poor countries simply won’t have food at any price because rich countries will have the money to buy everything. We’ve seen this before – it happened with Covid vaccines in 2021.
Food scarcity means…
What does humanity do if there isn’t enough affordable food to feed us all?
The reason why this is becoming concerning is due to several factors that combine, many of which have their roots in the Russian war against Ukraine. You might think that Ukraine is a small country on the other side of the world, but the war there has global effects.
To understand the problem, let’s focus on one global crop: wheat. In round numbers, the planet produces and consumes about 4 billion pounds of wheat per day. Wheat becomes more expensive because:
- The price of fuel is increasing due to sanctions against Russia and other factors. Farmers use fuel to plant, harvest and transport wheat.
- Fertilizer prices are rising. Nitrogen fertilizer production is often dependent on natural gas, and natural gas prices are rising (especially in Europe) due to Russian sanctions and other factors. Other fertilizer components are mined and miners use fuel for mining and transportation. In addition, Russia and Belarus produce a good part of the world’s fertilizers.
Significant wheat shortages could occur this year because:
- Without enough fertilizer, wheat harvests decline. The wheat will still grow, but the crop is smaller with insufficient fertilizer.
- Ukraine is one of the world’s top 10 wheat producers. With Russia’s war against Ukraine underway, Ukrainian farmers are expected to produce less wheat. Russian bombs also target food stocks in Ukraine.
- Russia is the world’s third largest wheat producer. Sanctions can stop Russian wheat exports, or Russia can suspend exports in retaliation for sanctions.
- China is the world’s largest producer of wheat. Flooding of China’s wheat farmland could reduce China’s wheat harvest by up to a third this year.
And that’s just one major global culture that’s having problems.
How to defend yourself
Faced with the potential for global food shortages, what steps could the HCGHW take? Here are some possibilities:
- Rapid regime change in Russia could help. With a different government, the Russian war against Ukraine could end quickly. This could reduce the need for sanctions and help global food and energy markets return to normal.
- There is a lot of agricultural land in places like North America and Europe that is lying fallow. It could potentially be activated in an emergency to produce crops. However, this should happen quickly, as wheat is usually sown in the spring.
- Meat production could be reduced. It can take several pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat (depending on the type of meat – beef is the worst offender).
- Food could be rationed for overweight and obese people. It may sound extreme, but overweight people eat more than skinny people and they can afford to shed a few pounds too. We could take food away from overweight people and give it to undernourished people. Having an overweight person who is a little hungry is significantly better than having an undernourished person who is starving.
Right now, most humans on planet Earth don’t tend to think globally like that. The HCGHW must think globally to avoid a potential food catastrophe. This kind of big picture thinking can give all of us a different perspective on what it means to be a human being.
I will start including the links for all the facts that I include in my articles. For example, in this article I say that the average person on Earth weighs 136 pounds. How can I know? I have a link below.
Marshall Brain: Are we going to cure cancer?