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Ravenously Hungry Humans
October 8, 2016
by William P. Meyers

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Increases in Population and Appetites are Transforming Earth

The vastness of the human agricultural effort, recently chronicled in an article in the New York Times, is difficult to comprehend. An overview of it tends to obscure both its vastness and complexity.

I have some specialty knowledge of large scale farming issues, including fertilizer production and ag computer modeling. I have also tried organic farming on a large-garden scale, and come from a family that went from independent farming, to tenant farming, to not farming at all in three generations (I would be in the fourth generation of that series).

I am a good eater; always liked to eat almost anything since I was an infant. It is not a family trait: my brother, for example, ate in larger volumes but from a narrower palette. My sister tried to eat only white things, and later converted (from Catholicism) to some Jewish sect that gives her a religious pretext to not eat many foods that she already refused to eat even as a child. I understand liking to eat. Even feeling ravenously hungry.

If the United States still had just a population of 4 million of so, as in 1776, or about 35 million people as around the time of the civil war, having about 1/3 of the population being fatter than well-fatted pigs might not be of that much ecological consequence. But we are now about 330 million. So we have about 110 million people eating enough food for 220 million normal people. Plus the other 220 million people, who are not, generally, exactly skinny either.

That is in a context of a world population of about 7.4 billion humans, up from about 1.6 billion in 1900. By the way, a billion is a thousand million. So take a million people, then take one thousand clumps like that, and you have a billion. Then take 7.4 clumps of those.

Massive numbers of ravenous people require massive amounts of food. You can talk about the wonders of the internet, but the main task of humans, by volume, is producing and consuming food. WebMD says a middle-age, moderately active female needs 2000 calories a day, while a male needs 2400. So lets call it 2200 for the average earth person. Ravenous people, of course, eat a lot more if they can get their hands on it. And yet some people go hungy, which is not our concern in this particular essay.

First the big numbers: humans on earth require about 2,200 times 7.4 billion calories per day:

16.3 trillion calories per day.

Trillion tends to take things out of the realm of ordinary comprehension, so lets do it with zeros:

16,300,000,000,000 calories per day.

All food begins as plant material. The bulk of it comes from just a few crops: wheat, corn (maize), rice, potatoes and soybeans.

These may be grown by peasants on a couple of acres of land, or by small organic farmers, but the bulk of the world's production is done on very large farms. I'll use wheat as an example, but the discussion could apply to any crop, including smaller specialties like vegetables.

Very large farms tend to be highly mechanized, so relatively little human labor goes into the production of a crop of wheat. The machinery is increasingly computerized, meaning even less labor, but better management of inputs and the weather-dependent timing of planting, spraying, fertilization and harvesting.

In order to get wheat for humans (or corn to feed animals for meat eaters) it is critical that all otehr creatures great and small be kept from the grain. Rodents, damaging insects, and of course all blights must be killed or at least kept to a minimum. Weeds, too, must be kept out. For the most part this means targeted pesticides (poisons). The best pesticides are maximally poisonous to their targets, and minimally to humans, but since all life shares the same core biochemical functions, sometimes the skew is not as great as we would like.

Organic farming is not really an option. Organic farming is what we had in 1900 when there were 1.6 million people. It is now an expensive way to farm for elite eaters. True, it does less harm to the environment, in general, than farming the same amount of land with current industrial methods. But to get the same amount of grain per acre takes more labor,so mostly farmers end up using more land. Insects, weeds, rodents, and blights must still be kept to a minimum, or you get little or no crop. And the secret of "organic" farming of the kind large-scale enough to display in supermarket chains is that these "organic" farms are mechanized and do have loopholes so they can kill weeds, insects, blight and rodents.

It is impossible to grow the vast amount of food needed to feed the large and ravenous human population without truly spectacular amounts of fertilizer. In turn, producing fertilizer takes energy, which comes from fossil fuels. Mechanizing the farms requires fossil fuels. Moving the food to market requires fossil fuels. You can add solar panels or wind turbines, but plants do not grow well in shade, so to produce energy you give up land that could produce crops.

To produce more food, if the world population continues to grow, and to grow fatter, will require more land farmed even more intensely. Most good land is already farmed, and a lot of marginal land is farmed as well. Drought and other problems can stop production in large areas even if the land is generally good.

Farming more land generally involves impacts on forests or other natural lands, which are already pretty minimal. The only exception might be deserts, but getting water to deserts is energy-intensive. And deserts are spreading. You can drive through deserts in the southern central valley of California where there used to be farming using groundwater, but the aquifer was sucked dry so now the farmers complain that they can't get more water sucked out of northern California, just for instance.

Finally, as vegans and vegetarians like to lecture endlessly, it takes a lot of grain to fatten a hog or steer. The low-carb, "paleo" diet fad actually increases the amount of grain that must be grown to feed the ravenous masses. Just all becoming vegetarians would help only on a temporary basis, because a lot of the grain for animals is grown on marginal land, and billions of people around the world are already on mostly-vegetarian diets because that is all they can afford.

So, a wise person would advise the United States and other industrial nations filled with fat people to ration food. Yep, ration food. The food and ag industry would hate that, the ravenous would hate that, but it would be good for people's health and the earth.

But even more obviously the entire world needs a one-child guideline. We really, really need to start the global population heading down, not up. I hope we won't need to physically enforce such a guideline. If most people have one child and some people have two, that will work. Tax incentives to help one-child families, but not giving extra help to larger families, would probably do most of the work. If there are sects, religious or otherwise, that insist on having large numbers of children, then I do think that something more forceful might be necessary.

Sometimes complex systems fall apart almost spontaneously. Global warming, water shortages, distribution issues, war, pesticide-resistant weeds, blights and insects; there are a number of ways the system could fail spectacularly in a relatively short period of time. Then the human race will die back in what will likely be a very brutal fashion. I'd rather reduce the population to a sustainable level in a civilized manner.


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