Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Book Review: Food Scarcity. Unavoidable by 2100?

This is an excerpt from the review by Ugo Bardi published on the "Journal of Population and Sustainability"

Scientific studies that examine the food supply and its correlation to human population have a long tradition that goes back to Thomas Malthus and his “An Essay on the Future of Population“ of 1798. From then on, the field has remained politically charged. Still today, Malthus is often dismissed as a doomsday prophet whose apocalyptic predictions turned out to be wrong. But Malthus lacked the modern concept of “overshoot and collapse” and he never predicted the kind of population crashes that we associate to modern famines.

Another study often accused of having been overly catastrophistic in terms of the future of the human population is the report to the Club of Rome titled “The Limits to Growth”, published in its first version in 1972. This is also a misinterpretation, since none of the several scenarios reported in 1972 foresaw a population decline before entering the second half of the 21st century.

Overall, studies in this field may be considered pessimistic or optimistic: it is a fact that, so far, the world's food supply system has been able to cope with an increasing population that is reaching today about 7.5 billion people. The question is for how long that will be possible.

In analogy with the first report to the Club of Rome, the recent book by Weiler and Demuynck, "Food Scarcity" approaches an old problem with a new methodology. While “The Limits to Growth” was one of the first studies to apply system dynamics to the study of the economy, “Food Scarcity” is among the first studies that applies the modern network theory to the world’s food system. The resulting book is an ambitious attempt to pack an enormous amount of material into just 150 pages. It starts with a review of the situation of the world’s food supply with extensive data on the different climate systems, cultivation technologies, geographical conditions, and more.

Is it a successful attempt? Under several respects, yes. An integrated approach is always better than the piecemeal approach of many superficial reports that don't go farther than admiring the increases in agricultural yield obtained so far and assuming that the trend can be continued forever and ever in the future. "Food Scarcity" does much better than this and identifies the limits to the world's food production system, which may lead to scarcity by 2100 or even earlier.

At the same time "Food Scarcity" has limits in its approach dedicated mainly to food production. Surely, it is the central point of the story, but food supply is not the same thing as food production. In particular, there is no mention in the book of the importance of the financial system in the issue of feeding the world’s population. As I argue in my book, "The Seneca Effect", food is delivered to people today because people are able to buy it, otherwise it would rot where it is produced. A long lasting global financial crisis could crash the food supply system and create again major famines. And for such an event, we may not have to wait for the food production system to reach its limits in 2100.

So, by all means an interesting book, well worth reading even though you have to take into account its aims and purposes. You can read the complete review by Ugo Bardi at "The Journal of Population and Sustainabilty


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)