Wednesday, November 2, 2011

7 Billion and the challenges

Nov 2, 2011


But there isn't enough water

THE world's population reached seven billion this week. The day, Monday, was marked with becoming happiness in countries that symbolically ushered in seven-billionth births. But it is the business of the United Nations Population Fund to inject realism into a statistical milestone few earthlings care about. It warns against over-consumption of resources: This was true before the fifth billion was crossed a generation ago. More optimistically, it says the crowded world could have thriving cities and productive labour that will grow economies, given the right planning and investment.

That is demanding a high threshold of proof. As 43 per cent of the seven billion are aged under 25, education and training obviously will make the difference between hope and despair.

It would have been nice if some of the increase of the past generation had been home-produced, in Singapore, for one. Or in Japan and South Korea. But what has been overlooked in the numbers lark is that falling fertility rates of the past half century - from six births per 1,000 to 2.5 - could see slower population growth than the addition of a billion every dozen years. It is possible the end-century number would be several billion short of 14-15 billion, at current rates of increase. Whatever the profile, competition for resources is the one constant that governments and the UN have to be watchful about. It is not food production. The world can feed itself. Such shortages that occur are mainly the result of questionable political choices and the machinations of food multinationals and futures markets. It is not about oil: Alternatives can be found or new industrial processes will emerge.

It is about water. Rivers cannot be transported to arid lands. 'Owners' of rich river sources and basins (China and Turkey are examples) will face increasing conflict with downstream nations as demand rises.

The World Resources Institute, a United States think-tank, calculates that water use will rise by 50 per cent in developing nations by 2025. Two representations highlight the challenges. The first: Only 2.5 per cent of the Earth's water is fresh, with two-thirds of that frozen. How soon can it be when oceans of salty water can be mined cheaply?

The second: It requires 100 litres of water to grow 1kg of potatoes, but to produce 1kg of beef takes 13,000 litres. There is scant chance of a change in eating habits when the middle-class multitudes of China and India are taking to meat-eating with gusto.

But if industry and governments would be as imaginative in seeking solutions as scientists are graphic in posing the challenge, Earth may not feel so overcrowded.

Over-population is a Myth!

Why reject the tech that puts food on plates of the poorest?

Now that we are 7 billion, let's feed the world

by Michael Hanlon

Todayonline Nov 02, 2011

Happy birthday, baby 7 billion, Danica May Camacho, born on Sunday night in Manila.

Since 1880, the world population has doubled and doubled again, and this has changed the face of the planet. We (hopefully) won't see a further doubling, but even the best-case projections see the human tide topping out at around 9 to 10 billion in the 2060s.

I am an optimist; I think we will cope, just - but it won't be easy. I know that to stand a chance of keeping an extra two or 3 billion people fed, watered and sheltered in the decades ahead without completely ruining our planet, we are going to have to abandon our bizarre, decadent aversion to "risky" new technologies and embrace a Brunellian programme of hyper-tech big engineering and innovation.

Today, we ignore the fact that the reason food is mostly affordable and famines are relatively rare is almost entirely down to the work of scientists few have even heard of - the plant breeders who forged the "green revolution" in the post-war years.

Nobel peace prizes have been awarded to some dodgy people, but if one man deserved it a thousand times over it was American scientist Norman Borlaug, whose work on dwarf and disease-resistant wheat varieties has been credited with saving a billion lives. His research proved wrong the doomsayers such as the US economist Paul Ehrlich, who in the '60s predicted global famines by the century's end.

But we may be getting close to the limits of conventional plant-breeding and we cannot take for granted its ability to feed an extra 1 to 2 billion mouths in future. Mr Ehrlich's predictions may yet come true - and food prices have been rising for some time.

There is fury among scientists at the reluctance of the world (outside the US and China) to embrace GM technology. In Britain, scientists have developed varieties of transgenic wheat that are resistant to a new strain of deadly stem-rust disease. Geneticists in the UK, the US, Switzerland and elsewhere have developed wheats, "golden" rices and barleys that require less expensive pesticides, less herbicides and far less water to grow, or which can even grow in brine.

Yet this technology is shunned not only in Europe but in Africa, where local green activists take their cue from decadent, well-fed Europeans who would presumably rather see the Third World starve than adopt "unnatural" technology.

If few have heard of Dr Borlaug, Ms Rachel Carson is a heroine to millions. Her 1962 book Silent Spring is credited with launching the modern green movement, and detailed the effects of chemicals such as DDT and pesticides on the food chain. Carson made "chemical" a dirty word. What her followers ignore (to her credit, she did not) is the fact that if it weren't for chemicals that kill insects, fungus and weeds, 2 billion people would be starving.

We are not just running out of food. The world faces an energy crisis of grotesque proportions. China's population has (more or less) stopped growing but India's hasn't, and if the subcontinent is to keep the lights on, it must invest in new energy technologies.

Again, we face a choice: Earth has plenty of coal and gas, but to power a world of 10 billion people using carbon-emitting, coal-fired steam turbines will invite consequences so dire that even the most diehard climate sceptics will be finally convinced, as the floodwaters come lapping round their ankles.

Again, there is an answer - the wholesale adoption of ultra-modern, clean, green nuclear-fission technology. Nuclear is not perfect. There are well-known dangers and costs associated with the atom. Like democracy, nuclear energy is the worst option there is - apart from all the alternatives.

Greens - not all, but too many - hate machines. We could go back, of course, to a world where food is grown "naturally" and our lives are powered by windmills and everything is sustainable and organic. Such a world would be a paradise if there were a billion humans. But there are not.

If the late-21st century is not to be remembered as the era of the giga-famine, we will have to stop pretending we live in a prelapsarian idyll and accept that only our ingenuity will allow Danica Comacho to live in anything approaching peace and prosperity.


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