Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Over-population is a fantasy

There are about 7 billion people on the planet today, with just over 9 billion expected by the year 2050. Given that many of the poorest 1-2 billion people on Earth may not even have enough to eat today, can we really expect to adequately feed more than 9 billion people in less than 40 years time? Well, in fact, our agricultural capacity to produce food, clothing, and shelter at the standards of the western world can accommodate nearly 12 billion people if only the food would not be subject to capitalism’s irrational planning and failure to properly distributed. The world has the resources and technology to eradicate hunger and ensure long-term food security for all. 40 million people die from starvation every year; whereas family farmers, herders and rural workers represent more than half of the world population a are the primary victims of hunger.  

The Earth today has about 4,100 million hectares of arable land (land with adequately fertile soil and sufficient rainfall capable of supporting traditional agriculture)–that’s 41 million square kilometers or about 16 million square miles. A little less than 5% of this land is part of protected parks and wildlife preserves. Of the rest, only 15 million square kilometers are presently used for agriculture according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). Arable land in these statistics includes forest land and pasture lands that could possibly be used for traditional agriculture, but might be realistically needed for other purposes. A small amount of actively farmed land in the world (mostly in the Middle East) is actually not arable–think desert land made viable by irrigation and fertilization–so, this is not an absolute limit on agriculture.

We would likely not be content turning all arable land, much of which exists as forest and other semi-wild ecosystems, into high productivity grain farming. The effects on wildlife and aesthetics would be dramatic. So, let’s assume that the world as a whole decides to protect twice the current arable area protected by parks and other reserves, and let’s assume that another 10% of the area would be made up of semi-wild managed forest, managed game lands, and similar uses. That leaves a total of 33 million square kilometers of arable land available for agriculture of which we are currently using 16 million, or about half. One might then assume that we could easily support twice the current population, but this neglects that about a billion people are malnourished today, and many more are poorly clothed and housed (agriculture also produces the fibers for clothing).

To begin, we should assure that we can generate at least 2500 calories per person per year (the average need for an adult man), which is somewhat more than necessary because it does not account for the lower needs of women and children. 2500 calories per person per year for 9.2 billion people is a global need of 23 trillion calories per day in 2050. If every acre of arable land were planted with potatoes (the highest caloric yield per acre of any crop), we could produce 8 times more than we need to support all 9.2 billion individuals’ energy needs, although potatoes alone would not meet people’s nutritional requirements for protein and other nutrients. (interestingly, apples might provide even more calories per acre than potatoes)
Instead, relying on a one-third each mixture of corn, beans, and squash combined with a rotation in similar crops would provide for almost all nutritional needs including protein, vitamins, and minerals (data on yields and caloric content can be found here, here, here, and here, organic farming yields were used where available). This combination produces an average total of 2.7 million calories per acre or enough with all arable land in production to feed 2.5 times the population in 2050. If we were to allow for more variety in our diets and incorporate additional servings of a wider array fruits and vegetables our average yield might fall to 2.4 million calories per acre and reduce the surplus to 2.3 times the population in 2050 (using tomatoes at 80 calories per pound and 20,000 lbs per acre as a proxy for a mix of other vegetables).

Next, however, we should account for the needs of fiber (textiles and paper), and timber (paper and construction materials). Cotton consumption in the US peaked in the 1990’s at about 6.7 kg per person per year, and is currently about half of that. If we use the higher figure as a basis for worldwide needs in a fully developed economy, we would have a need of 62 million metric tons (tonnes), or a little more than twice the estimated cotton production for 2012. At current yields of 0.8 tonnes per hectare, worldwide fiber needs could be met by less than one million square kilometers (0.77 million sq. km). The demand for other fibers like wool and synthetics can be estimated at a value equal to cotton demand, for another 0.8 million sq. km. Total timber consumption in the US in 2005 (including pulp for paper, hardwood, softwood lumber, veneer, and other products) was about 20 billion cubic feet or 67 cubic feet per person. This translates into a global demand of 620 billion cubic feet or 12 billion tonnes. Using sustainable forest management practices, a yield of 6,600 kg per hectare of wood might be possible, while bamboo could yield up to 40,000 kg per hectare. This implies arable land needs of 3 million square kilometers (bamboo) to 18 million square kilometers (mix of hard and soft wood). Assuming bamboo will be able to meet half of the demand for these products, we would have a projected need of 10 million square kilometers for all timber together with the 1.6 million square kilometers for fiber.

So, the food (14 M, timber (10 M, and fiber (1.6 M needs of the projected population in 2050 can be met with only 78% of our available arable land (26 of 33 M In fact, every man, woman, and child on the planet would be able to consume as much of these things as Americans typically do (or more in the case of vegetables), and that level of production would satisfy up to 11.6 billion people. While annual crop rotations are assumed in these calculations, multiple crops in a given year are not even though they are common in many places. What these figures do not include explicitly are animal products, although fish and game harvested in sustainable quantities would be an addition with no impact on the other values as would animals raised on agricultural waste products including wheat and rice straw, winter cover crops such as alfalfa, and discarded produce as well as those raised on pasture lands that do not qualify as arable (hill sides, rocky grasslands, arid grasslands, etc.). Adding animals raised on grain or other primary agricultural produce would reduce the caloric and protein productivity of the land overall, but would still be possible given the 7 million square kilometers of unused arable land revealed in this scenario. Future changes in the amount of arable land due to climate change or sea level rise are not considered here.

So, why don’t we feed everyone sufficiently today given that we have more than enough worldwide agricultural land in production? There are several reasons. One is waste. In the US 20-40% of agricultural produce is wasted for one reason or another. Another is high value but low productivity agricultural activities including grain fed cattle and alcohol production. Another is the combination of adverse incentives created by rich and poor world governments actively involving themselves in the agricultural markets to different ends. We can say then that we are not necessarily heading for an impending disaster, but whether we succeed in sufficiently providing for everyone will remain an open question.


Mike Ballard said...

Bullcrap. You're forgetting about the environmental impact. I go for a world population size which can be fed and housed using organic agriculture under social ownership and democratic control of the collective product of labour. This analysis assumes commodity production for sale under the rule of Capital, using non-organic agricultural methods, including GMO.

ajohnstone said...

"I go for a world population size which can be fed and housed using organic agriculture under social ownership and democratic control of the collective product of labour."

So would i but what is it going to be? I would suggest the planet under those conditions can carry many more than the expected projections without any serious disruption to people, fauna and flora .

They have been saying we are over-populated for over three hundred years...someday in the future under capitalism they might be correct.

But I think the more accurate description of the population situation, is that we are over-crowded. Too many mega-urban areas with scant regard to services.

Is GMO food to be opposed under every circumstance everywhere once it is freed from Monsanto's clutches?
What are we going to do with the vast acreages of monoculture that now exists in certain regions of the world and has done for near on a hundred years or more? Shall we divide up the land and hand out plots to people to give up urban life and return to rural living? Re-wilding it, is that an option for us in some parts of the world? I think there will be a lively debate once we re-gain ownership of the land and begin the task of bringing farming into harmony with nature.

Mike Ballard said...

The farms were enormous. We had decided long ago that divvying up the land into small, personal, but sustainable lots, had become a burdensome time sink. So, those who wanted to do farm work did that part of our necessary, collective labours to accomplish what we needed from agriculture and what we needed was food and drink. Still, sustainably produced, to be sure. The land was important. It had to be taken care of, like an old friend. As a result of going large, our productivity grew and our free time increased.


Yes, the farmers were in charge of beer production, from the beginning of the cycle, to its end in bottles, for home or just available, fresh on tap from the various pubs which dotted our communities. Parties were spontaneous then. Wherever they occurred, there was always plenty of fresh beer to quaff and well tended marijuana to toke. The farmers' product was ours and the products of our labour time were theirs. Common ownership was understood by all.

We knew that we had to work. That was necessary and sometimes even, what we wanted most to do with our time. But, most of us relished our free time, away from necessary labour. In any event, every moment was lived in all its sensuous glory, even when we spent time doing what we all knew was necessary namely, producing food and drink. We were farmers. Of course, there were slackers, ones who didn't apply themselves to the tasks at hand. They were shunned and ridiculed for a time. Most of them came around to seeing that their lives could be more richly rewarded, if they just did what was needed. It was their choice as to what task or activity that might be. In other words, if they did what was needed, they would not be cast outside our association or made poorer, in any significant way, than their neighbours. The others, the ones who refused to apply themselves to the effective labour time required of them to remain in the community were eventually left to fend for themselves in the wild. Community pressure was too much for them. We did not condone stealing personal possessions from one another and that included stolen time. If someone refused take their tasks seriously enough to get them accomplished, with the best quality they could provide, we all knew it. By quality, I don't mean perfectly, but just doing the job as best an individual could. And if they didn't, we'd eventually make that person so uncomfortable that they would leave and perhaps, try their luck with another community, although, to be fair, this was unlikely to meet with much success as that community would have very similar standards. As I said, most everyone thought that their free-time was a core measure of fulfilment.


ajohnstone said...

Many thanks for the link. A good read. Strange though that i got a google warning that it was adult content. Socialism deemed too controversial for children?

Anonymous said...

Where does this "2500 calories per person per year" come from? People doing heavy manual jobs need to consume twice or three times that or more in a DAY!

ajohnstone said...
With socialism we have to remember that the working hours will be reduced.

I guess it is an average...

Mike Ballard said...

I volunteered to put my two blogs on the adult level. Sometimes I do use four letter words in my writing. Some people are offended by that. I'm not out to offend anyone, just expressing my thoughts. I feel sorry for the poor sausages who are offended by words.

Sea Weed said...

The myth of overpopulation justifies the scapegoating and human rights violations of poor people, women, people of color and immigrant communities: Often times the subtext of “too many people” translates to too many poor people, people of color and immigrants. In the 1970’s Puerto Rico, under the control of and with funding from the US government , forced the sterilization of 35% of women of child bearing age . This is a human and reproductive rights violation. It also prevents us from dealing with the real social, political and economic origins of our ecological problems and places the blame on communities with less institutional power. This perpetuates a fear mindset, keeps people divided and blaming each other rather than being able to come together to organize for true self determination and security.

Mike Ballard said...

The city I live around is overpopulated. We've been told that we now have to drink recycled sewage. The assumption is that "we" need more people to produce more for sale with a view to profit. Never mind the availability of fresh water in a desert like climate. The Earth is a commodity to be bought and sold, just like labour power.

Humans need to live in harmony with the ecosphere, not pay attention to the bourgeoisie, whose interests here have to do with increasing the supply of labour power in order to lower its price. Our eco sphere is being bought and sold, as if it were a mere commodity. The reality is that it is our lifeblood. I'm putting the blame for climate change right where it belongs--the wage system and the commodification of life which flows from its everyday operation.