How can we feed the world? That is no doubt a serious question. In this post I show why this question is also ambiguous in a way that may be blocking a sustainable solution.
The world population is growing, and thus demanding more food. However, agriculture is unlikely to keep up the pace, especially since poor nations are also expected to acquire lifestyles enjoyed in the West. To make things worse, current production methods are not sustainable due to issues with environmental degradation, climate change, and the impacts on public health and animal welfare. Since sustainable production is generally less productive, food shortages can be anticipated, potentially leading to hunger and social conflict. Thus, we really need to find a way to feed the world. But how?
In order to pinpoint the ambiguities in this question, let’s break it down into its parts, and discuss each part in turn: How – can – we – feed – the world?
How – suggests a technological solution is called for. Indeed, it would be wonderful if we could redesign current systems, making them both more productive and sustainable at the same time. However, such a technological innovation would at best be a temporary solution, because main underlying causes are chronic and not to be found out there in the world.
Can – suggests optimism about our problem-solving abilities. An impressively efficient food-production system has been developed since the Second World War. Smartphones and solar panels may further justify optimism about our technological capabilities. So, perhaps we can tackle the food issue as well. But the problem is complex, as our food system is built on a long series of technological innovations and it is extremely resistant to alternatives lacking an appealing business model. Our food system is also firmly embedded in fixed belief structures concerning free will in free markets, which, soon or later, will probably have to be changed as well. We have shown excellence in mastering the world through technological innovation. But I don’t think we can be as optimistic when it comes to mastering ourselves.
We – may refer to ‘all of us’, i.e. how can we feed the world together? But ‘we’ may also refer to an elite group of people, such as a consortium of research partners or the farmers of a small country. In this sense, ‘we’ may be portraying ourselves as having divine powers like dropping manna from the sky. But do ‘we’ really want to feed the world because we care for people as Jesus presumably did? Or are ‘we’ primarily raising the question as part of a business model, e.g. to raise money to open up new markets or to do (more) innovative research? Or, as Mark Bittman put it: “Feeding the world” might as well be a marketing slogan for Big Ag, a euphemism for “Let’s ramp up sales” (NYT, Oct 14, 2013).
Feed – suggests that we are like a mother that ‘feeds’ her children. Alternatively, it may mean that we are farmers selling produce, such that people can feed their families, if they can afford it. In fact, however, it more often means that ‘we’ will be working on innovations so (some) farmers can (just) stay in business. So, the word ‘feeding’ is not to be taken literally at all. In addition, the word ‘feeding’ suggests providing sufficient nutrients to sustain life. But the thing is, we are already producing enough food to feed the global population of 2050. Therefore, since more affordable food is likely to lead to an increase in demand, it may concern a quest for sustained decadence, rather than providing nutrients per se. As long as one third of our food is wasted, farmers are growing tulips rather than crops, and consumers are eating burgers rather than beans, we may well be dealing with a luxury problem here, rather than a basic human need.
The world – suggests that we will be feeding all the living creatures of the world, including all people, plants and animals, wild and tame. However, ‘the world’ is more likely used here as a shorthand for ‘the world’s population of humans (only)’. In other words, in this question, we humans are the world. That, of course, is false. We are not the world. In fact, it’s more likely we have been destroying the world. And in the process we seem to have ‘forgotten’ that animals matter as well, and that we and all other animals need the natural environment in order to flourish. But, this seemingly innocent semantic mistake of equating us with the world is reason for concern. It may be indicative of exactly the frame of mind, characterised by oversimplifying economic rationalisation and cognitive dissonance, that has resulted in both the excellent production efficiency and the apparent unsustainability of our current food-production system. As long as that frame of mind remains ‘in business’ and we continue to ignore our own responsibilities, we have little chance of properly addressing the problem.
The question ‘How can we feed the world?’ poses a real challenge, but it does so in a most ambiguous way. In fact, every part of this question is raising one or more ambiguities. It is hard to see how this issue can be solved, if we remain over-optimistic about technological solutions, while largely ignorant about underlying mechanisms and our own moral responsibilities. It will be extremely difficult to change our habits and ‘re-invent’ ourselves. Therefore, we urgently have to start acknowledging that we ourselves are the root cause of the problem that needs to be tackled.