An essay by Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at ISU’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
The question “How are we going to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050?” now routinely appears in the popular press. Posing the question in this way, important as it is, implies that if we just figure out how to produce more food, we can solve the problem of hunger. There are several problems with this assumption.
First, as I wrote in a column in our quarterly Leopold Center newsletter, scholars had already pointed out in 2012 that we were producing enough food to feed 10 billion people, yet almost a billion were chronically hungry. It certainly suggests that we have to come to terms with the fact that solving the hunger problem is not simply a matter of producing adequate amounts of food. Hunger is caused by an array of problems including poverty, inequality, food waste, food access, and ignoring the issue of the “right to food.” In this regard, the amount of food we produce that is wasted is particularly troubling. By some estimates, today we waste at least 40 percent of the food that we produce. The good news is, many people in the food system are beginning to deal with this problem.
Second, posing the problem of a growing human population as simply a feeding challenge ignores another reality – the “carrying capacity” of the planet. For the last several centuries, we have lived in a culture that assumes nature is mostly “out there” and nature is simply a collection of objects from which we humans are largely separate, and therefore we can make nature do whatever we want in our own interests. However, humans are actually an integral part of nature. We can only thrive and be healthy as long as the rest of nature is healthy.
As Aldo Leopold stated almost 100 years ago, nature’s health should be defined in terms of her capacity for “self-renewal.” The Earth’s capacity for self-renewal is dependent upon a balance of interrelationships of all of life. For that reason, nature never tolerates a “density” of any species. All species are interdependent and must be limited in ways in which they contribute to the self-renewing capacity of the whole. Humans are not exempt from this law of ecology.
This suggests that Wendell Berry’s insight regarding problems is exceptionally relevant. To define a problem as a single tactic phenomenon – like solving the hunger problem by simply producing more food – fails to recognize that singular problems are actually a “pattern of problems” and we have to address the interrelated pattern and “not just some handily identifiable and simplifiable aspect of it.”
Consequently, as author Donald Worster asserts, the “limits of growth” concept involves both the amount of economic growth and the growth of the human population on the planet. It is for these reasons that we must now abandon our fetish for economic growth. Regenerating life on Earth must have a higher priority than producing as much as possible. While economic well-being is important, it will always be dependent on the self-renewing capacity of the resources on which economic growth depends. If we are interested in a healthy, well-fed human population, we need to redefine growth in terms of the wealth of nature, rather than the wealth of nations.
1. Leopold Letter, Vol. 24, No. 4, winter 2012
2. Worster, Donald, 2016; Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance, New York, Oxford University Press
3. Berry, Wendell, 1981; “Solving for pattern,” Chapter 9 in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural & Agricultural, San Francisco, North Point Press
This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.