Having a malthus moment – why we worry about food waste
Despite being over-fed, we appear to be hard-wired into a fear of famine.
We are especially spooked by the thought of 10 billion hungry mouths to feed by 2050, two billion more of us than there are today: that’s nearly two Indias.
It’s the same fear that haunted the 18th Century thought leader and theologian Robert Malthus. He worried that society would never realise its full potential if it was unable to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. Famine, he warned, would lead to pestilence and vice.
The spectre of the 10 billion is giving us a Malthus Moment.
Of course, Malthus forgot to factor in technology and he died a good century before the spectacular results of the Green Revolution in farming. This began after World War II when mechanisation and cheap fossil fuels combined with fertilisers, pesticides and modern farming techniques to boost farm outputs dramatically.
With all that food about, people began to multiply rapidly and the world experienced its second Malthus Moment when the American academic Paul Ehrlich published his influential Population Bomb in 1968. While Malthus may have forgotten about technology, Ehrlich failed to consider the prospect of population growth slowing down. This is what happened in developed countries, especially in Europe.
Food remains plentiful and cheap. Rich, technically advanced countries live like food oligarchs. Obesity is on the rise in rich and poor countries. But with the ‘10 by 2050’ ghoul being promoted by campaign groups like WWF – based on the planetary boundary arguments that we are running out of planet – the ghost of Malthus is back with a bang.
Again, those who are most frightened by the prospect of famine dismiss the role of technology (genetic modifications and test-tube proteins) and spread concern about our ability to feed ourselves. We are firmly in our third Malthus Moment.
Of course we will find a solution and science and technology will be part of it. But until the boffins get going, there is a relatively easy fix staring at us from the trash can: Stop wasting food. We don’t have to find more land. And we don’t have to go to Mars. If we could just save all the food we waste (a third of what’s grown), it should be enough to feed the extra two billion while we devise ways to feed the next 10 billion.
Much like the energy-efficiency argument – use less, generate less – we seem to find the simplicity of the act of preventing waste rather mystifying. We much prefer to build things (more dams), drill deeper (more underground water) and clear more land. Farming already uses 38% of our ice-free land, compared with just 2% for cities, and uses 70% of our fresh water.
Why we feel that salvation lies in hacking down more forest, expanding agriculture into ever more fragile environments and sucking up more water remains a mystery.
This slash and burn solution will not work. The campaigners are right, the planet is a finite resource. The laws of science define our predicament and direct us to be much more efficient in the way we grow, pack, distribute and use food.
Close to 30% of agricultural land is used to grow food that is subsequently wasted. It seems that we have no brain when it comes to no-brainers on what to do first.