By Donella Meadows
–April 9, 1987–
In the “developing countries” there were 1.7 billion people in 1950. Now there are 3.6 billion. There will be 4.9 billion by the year 2000 and 8.8 billion by 2100, according to U.N. projections.
Can all these people be fed? Are the soils and waters of the earth sufficient to provide for them? Or are overpopulation and starvation inevitable?
Five years ago Mahendra Shah called me into his office to show me his scheme for answering those questions.
We live in such a globally-connected, information-rich age that Mahendra — born in Kenya in a Gujarati-speaking Indian community, talking to me in English in a Viennese institute — found the data and resources to carry out his scheme. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome supplied world soil and climate maps and agricultural data. The International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna did the computing. The U.N. Fund for Population Activities in New York paid for the project.
The result is called in alphabureaucratese the FAO/IIASA/UNFPA Study. It shows that the world is not so limited, not so predetermined, but also not so unbounded, as we like to think.
Mahendra’s team overlaid soil and climate maps to define thousands of different growing zones — 18,713 distinct land units in Africa alone. They took into account urban expansion, erosion, irrigation, the different requirements of crops grown in different parts of the world.
Then they computed how much food these lands are capable of producing, under three different technical assumptions — traditional low yields, intermediate yields, and high (European-level) yields.
They were interested in outer limits, upper bounds, so they made some deliberately wild assumptions:
– no food imports; the question is to what extent each country can feed its own people, – arable land used only for food crops (no tobacco, forest, fiber, or export crops), – livestock fed from pasture only, not from feedgrains, – food evenly distributed within each country, – everyone receives the minimum diet necessary for good health, – all necessary fertilizer, pesticides, energy, machinery available without interruption. Under these optimistic flat-out-feed-everyone conditions, the calculations show that the developing countries could raise, on their own lands, with low, intermediate, and high yields, enough food for 1.5 times, 4 times, or 9 times their expected year-2000 populations.
These results can be interpreted with just about any mix of optimism and pessimism.
You could say there is no problem. Even with low yields the developing countries could feed their year-2000 populations and then they have 100 years to achieve the high yields that will easily feed their year-2100 populations.
Or you could say that if intermediate technology were reached by the year 2000, there would be some excess for the allocation of land to crops other than food, for diets above the minimum, and for maldistribution. But not much excess. Achieving intermediate yields everywhere will take a major effort. Food self-sufficiency for the Third World is possible, but by no means guaranteed.
Or you could say that to supply the capital, chemicals, and fuel necessary for high yields, to organize the farmers and the markets, to endure the environmental burden, to establish equitable food distribution, all that is impossible. Overpopulation and hunger are the lot of the Third World now, and will be so even more in the future.
Whatever conclusion you draw at the global level, at the country level some of the FAO/IIASA/UNFPA results are unquestionably disturbing.
Some countries just do not have the land to feed their year-2000 populations even at high yields. They include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Somalia, Lesotho, Haiti, and much of the Middle East. Some of these countries have resources they can trade for food; others do not. After the year 2000, if populations go on growing, other countries come onto the critical list, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria.
There is enough agricultural capacity in southeast Asia, South America, central Africa, and the developed countries to provide food for everyone. But extensive trade networks, financing systems, or aid provisions will be required to pull that off.
Mahendra and his team have not drawn out the political implications of their study. They think of their maps of agricultural potential as “lessons in basic resource literacy”. Each country can come to its own conclusions about how to mix food imports, population control, agricultural investments, distributional equity.
I look at the maps and see a country like Bangladesh, with 100 million people, encircled by political lines that do not enclose sufficient land resources to feed that many, even at high yields. Other resources that could be traded for food are not abundant within those lines. Bangladesh doesn’t have many choices. Yet in the world as a whole there is more than enough food.
We are connected enough, informed enough, so that people like Mahendra Shah and institutions like FAO, IIASA, and the UNFPA can quantify the predicament of countries like Bangladesh. The next step is to be connected and informed enough to ensure that all people, no matter what political lines they happen to be born within, have enough to eat.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987