By Dan McGroarty
For those of us who aren’t sure what’s in the fridge that can be microwaved into tonight’s dinner, or if we can use our indecision as a justification for take-out (again), worrying about what’s for dinner in the Year 2050 is a little hard to process.
Here’s 2.7 billion reasons we should. Between now and 2050 the world will welcome that many more mouths to feed – or, for those of us who have no meaningful way to envision billions as a concept, that’s like adding two more Chinas in the next 30 years.
Feeding those billions, along with the rest of us for whom eating is already a daily habit, will create plenty of cross-pressures. As billions (there’s that number again) of the world’s people move from subsistence living (and eating) to a more middle-class existence, they’ll want – and be willing to pay for – more protein in their diet. For many, it will mean the first opportunity to eat meat with some regularity (a good thing), which will put added strains on the world’s ability to produce meat, a notoriously water- and feed-intensive exercise (a bad thing).
With some First Worlders declaring a War on Hamburgers, it’s a tough bit of news for folks in the developing world: there you are, grabbing a tray in the middle class cafeteria just in time to be scolded about your meat-dreams, being told to tuck in to a “traditional diet” of vegetables and plant-based proteins. Lecturing 21st century taste buds that they need to eat like their 11th century ancestors? We’ll have to see how that works out. (Don’t let those developing world parents see the study that shows kids who eat protein-rich eggs every day grow taller.)
Then again, some of the imagined 2050 menu items would make a cave-person blanch: Insects, weeds, heaping helpings of soy and seaweed – washed down with purified sweat… Acquired tastes, to be sure.
We’ll also see a sharpening of the clash between growing food-to-fuel-people versus growing food-to-fuel-cars – for instance, in the corn-to-ethanol debate, and the allocation of corn acreage with its impact on pricing. Which in turn raises issues about how we use Earth’s ever-shrinking arable land – who gets to buy it, farm it and ultimately consume its product.
Along the way, we’ll be in for a good bit of scolding (“protein shaming?” If it’s not a thing, count on it becoming one), as in an already-published study showing that one-third of the forkfuls of food on our First World plates go into the trash. I sincerely hope tax-dollars weren’t consumed on that bit of learning, as my mother surely knew the data years ago when she advised us to clean our plate, since children were starving in far-flung locales.
As a child, I never had the nerve to ask how a surfeit of food in one part of the planet – the ultimate perishable and wasting-asset – does that far-flung hungry child absolutely any good. And yet today as we learn more and more about how to preserve and transport edible items tens of thousands of miles, who is to say we’ve seen the last word on food insecurity and inefficient markets?
Light-heartedness aside, today’s metaphorical wars – against hamburgers and other meat, against food waste, obesity and the like – could lead to tomorrow’s wars of the all-too-real kind, over land and water.
But there’s no need to get all Mathusian about it, waiting for Hunger Games to turn from fiction to fact; we can explore the Cornucopian side of things, in the spirit of the environmental economist Julian Simon, to see whether and how technology, innovation, science and medicine can help humankind meet the challenge of so many new dinner guests.
The planet’s resources may be finite, but the human brain as a resource is just getting started, so we shouldn’t make the mistake of straight-lining that today’s approaches to the “problem of food” are the only solutions on our shelf.
We won’t settle these issues here at The Economic Standard, but we can raise them and give them a good going over. Think of it as food for thought.
2050 isn’t as far away as it sounds. We need to get busy finding food solutions before a 10-billion person planet’s hunger pangs set in.
Dan McGroarty is the geo-policy editor at the Economic Standard www.theeconomicstandard.com