Humanity’s Gamble (I)

Ehrlich, Anne H., Ehrlich, Paul R. | February 18, 2014 | Leave a Comment

humanity's gamble 1

Humanity today complacently assumes that the world agricultural system can continue to feed the huge and growing human population indefinitely without revolutionary changes in strategy and behavior. The world community is taking a gigantic gamble that even today’s inadequate level of nourishment can be maintained for as many as 9.7 billion people, a third more than exist today, in 2050, a mere 36 years from now.

Among many unexamined assumptions, the gamble includes betting that climate disruption will not prevent continuing increases in the yields of major grains and soybeans nor cause more and more widespread crop failures through extreme weather. It includes betting that climate disruption, leading to migrations and depletion of fish species, combined with ocean acidification, will not reduce fisheries productivity.  In the face of climate disruption, as precipitation patterns change and glaciers melt, we are betting that water will continue to be readily available for farming, especially critical access to water for irrigation, and that changes in infrastructure and other measures will be sufficient to prevent further deterioration of water security.

It is betting that the food system, heavily dependent on oil and itself producer of roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, can make a substantial start on kicking both habits.  It is betting that the constant need for more food will not prevent nations from undertaking a serious commitment towards global atmospheric decarbonization.  It is betting that the energy-intensive and highly polluting Haber-Bosch process can continue to keep nitrogen levels in agricultural systems adequate and  that the geopolitical problems surrounding the world’s available supplies of phosphorous for fertilizer, especially battles over Western Sahara, will be solved,[1] even while reducing the deleterious effects of overfertilization runoff on ocean and freshwater productivity.  It is betting that expanding reliance on such macronutrient fertilizers can replace sound soil husbandry over the long term.

In addition, humanity is betting that integrated pest management (IPM) can safely and effectively replace both the pest-control service of winter in midlatitudes as the global average temperature rises, and as the pest-control services of birds, bats, and predacious insects falter as their populations decline in the great sixth extinction episode now well under way. It is also betting that, especially for the variety and nutritional quality of food, natural pollination services will be maintained despite the biodiversity crisis.  It is betting that the ‘genetic insurance’ provided by the wild relatives and indigenous cultivars of food crops will not be lost or eliminated from the countryside and remaining wildlands by the drivers of global environmental change operating in synergy. It is betting that the growing demand for meat in emerging economies, and for biofuels, will not reduce the access of the poor to grains. And perhaps most important, it is betting that people will have the income to purchase what food is available.

At the moment, this looks like a very bad series of bets, especially since close to a billion people are already hungry and more than that are malnourished.  Nonetheless, these are far from the last of the bets.  Perhaps the biggest unquestioned assumption is that the trajectory of the global population will follow the medium projection of the United Nations’ demographers and that little or nothing can or should be done to change it.  This bet includes assumptions that death rates will continue to fall as they have done for more than a century and that birthrates in developing nations will gently decline as in recent decades, while those in developed nations may rise significantly.  The continued expansion of the population is on a collision course with the tightening constraints of the agricultural system, as well as of other essential resources.

Losing any of the bets about future food supplies could easily result in thousands to hundreds of millions of additional deaths and enormous hardship; losing several bets could produce some combination of mass starvation, pandemics, and warfare (possibly nuclear), leading to a general breakdown of civilization.

Can the odds of losing these misguided bets and of avoiding a collapse be changed?  What would be required to do so?  We will explore some possibilities for brightening the future outlook in our next blog.


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  • Rod

    In your Royal Society “collapse” article** you said
    “Nor has agriculture moved towards feeding people protein extracted from
    leaves…. ”.

    There has been a recent advance on that. The leaf protein extraction methods of the 1970s gave a low yield of protein recovery, typically 25% of the
    protein in the leaves. But in the 1980s I helped develop and pilot (1000kg/h
    infeed) a mechanical process that extracted 80% of the protein. It was never
    commercialized because the protein-stripped fibre that was left was unsuitable
    for animal feed, which was a major economic co-product.

    We intended that the fibre be used for biofuel (it was the time of the 1980s liquid fuel crisis), but of course that went away, and by the time biofuels came back our process had been forgotten. My poking at the subject has been unable to re-ignite discussion.

    We think it may now be practical to ferment both the hydrolyzed fibre and the extracted plant sugars to yeast, and in total more than 6 tonnes dry weight per hectare could be available as human-grade (though unfamiliar) food. Some food technology would help.

    Additional benefits for leaf protein that would not have been of interest in the 1970s are: the protein yield/ha even without fermentation is more than double that of soybeans and five times that of milk; the crop is perennial so ploughing and soil damage is much less; leaf crops have low vulnerability to insect and disease attacks, so require little if any spraying; weed control is not much of an issue as most weeds can be part of the crop; deep-rooted perennials like lucerne are quite drought-tolerant; there would be none of the nitrogen pollution associated with dairying; if there is a drought/flood/hurricane disaster, afterwards most leaf crops will quickly recover in a way that seed crops and livestock often do not.

    That’s the potential. For now we are only trying to persuade people
    that it would be a good process for producing feed for aquaculture,
    because that is as much of a mind-shift as can be absorbed. In that
    scenario we are proposing that the fermentation would produce long-chain
    omega-3 fatty acids to help replace wild-caught fishmeal***.


    *** a Dupont process

  • jane

    Writing from the waterlogged UK-with no respite in sight-I note that some media commentators are now criticising DEFRA-the Environment Agency-for having put the interests of biodiversity before human needs in the recent past.

    This can do no good in the long term,since ever more of our flora and fauna are disappearing;the recent flooding is now known to have devastated many populations of bumble bees and small mammals.

    It is short sighted and irresponsible to claim that efforts to protect and conserve biodiversity can be held to blame for the devastation caused by the flooding in many areas.

    The protection of wild populations and countryside should not be scapegoated at such a difficult time.

    If the crowded UK continues to experience extreme weather on a regular basis,food production is bound to be compromised,and it seems likely that the interests of our flora and fauna will take a back seat : less important than agriculture,housing development and preparations for protection against flooding,storms,high tides and droughts.

    Since we are still wedded to growth at all costs, I would guess that pressure on land and resources will intensify, resulting from the demands of a constantly expanding human population coinciding with a possible/probable increase in frequency of adverse weather conditions.

    These links are worth following