Can science feed us?

Predictions suggest the world’s population will peak in 40 years time at 9 billion, and to feed them all we need a 40% increase in food production. In a recent review, Valentí Rull from the Botanical Institute of Barcelona questioned whether scientific advances that increase food production are really the way forward.

On the face of it the idea is simple – we can feed more people if plant breeding/ genetic modification means more food can be grown on the same land, if better technology means fertiliser is only spread on the parts of the field that need it, if different varieties of each crop could be grown as the climate warms etc.

But Rull fears that it wont be enough and that it’s only a short-term measure. For many of us, 2050 is within our lifetimes, and feeding everyone then isn’t sufficient. We need longer-term sustainability. Will science as it’s going be able to feed people in a sustainable manner, without pillaging from future generations?

He suggests that our infatuation with increasing GDP is incompatible with social justice and environmental safety. There are alternative economic models to consider, where GDP remains stable or declines and the focus is on improving the quality of life. After all, it has been shown repeatedly that, once people’s basic needs have been satisfied, a high GDP does not increase overall happiness.

Of course technology and crop improvement have a role to play both in the current economic model and in the steady-state model discussed by Rull. They just have a slightly different focus – to increase food production at whatever cost, or just to decrease the amount of land needed to grow a set amount of food. Which political model should our scientific advances support?

Rull’s point is that our focus on science to answer problems of how to feed ourselves is still allowing us to continue on an unsustainable capitalist path. Despite advances in science, the world’s carrying capacity is finite. He points out that societies are reluctant to chance, and a political system which promotes such short term gains and regular changes of government can make such radical suggestions seem implausible, but there are ways things can change.

Rull V (2010) Who needs a greener revolution? EMBO reports doi:10.1038/embor.2010.116

So, is our system unsustainable even with technological advances?

Should scientists be pointing out that we can’t keep wanting more and more from the land?

Is there any hope of political change, and demand reduction rather than production increase?


About Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:
This entry was posted in Food security, Politics, Sustainability and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Can science feed us?

  1. emmalouisewright says:

    The problem is even if we can provide food for the 9 billion world population of 2050…what then? What happens when the population carries on growing and no ammount of GM, better farming practices, high yeild crops, reduced wastage or anything else can keep up? What a scary thought.

  2. Bob says:

    Did anyone see this on BBC news:
    The scary news that weight loss surgery could be going to the wrong people whilst those who could actually benefit from it are being left to suffer?

    Maybe on way to fix world food shortages is just to get some people to eat less! 😛 Seriously, how do people get into these conditions?

  3. And even if the population does peak at 9 billion, are they still going to want more? Our food intake – lots of meat and, yes, in lots of cases too much food – requires far more land than the diets currently consumed in most parts of the world. Will everyone want to eat like us?

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