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Feeding 10 Billion

chuck kottke

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I thought this might be an interesting topic to discuss!

I began a quest to see what 10 billion people would actually look like, and it turns out that if we all stood within two feet (roughly 2/3 meter) of one-another, and stood in formation, the marching square for 10 billion (projected human population in a few years) would only be 75 miles, or ~120 kilometers, on a side. Putting this to scale on a map gives us some perspective to how big humanity is, if we were seen from above..

And then, calculating the productivity of my garden, assuming I live in an average area of North America for climate and soil fertility, it takes about 1/6th of an acre (1/15th hectare) for the grain portion of my diet, and another 1/6th of an acre for everything else. 1/6th of an acre works out to a garden plot that's 50 feet by 150 feet (15 meters by 45 meters), to put that into perspective.

Extrapolating that by 10 billion, the area required (land only) to feed 10 billion of us then works out to 5.4 million square miles (or 8.7 million square kilometers). To put it into perspective, North America has an area of roughly 8.1 million square miles (13 kilometers square). So, the productive farmland in North America, plus dry lands irrigated with desalinated sea water would pretty much be able to feed 10 billion people (if only it were that simple!).

On a practical level, obviously no one continent nor region will be providing all the food, but it does offer up the idea of making it possible to live quite well on our planet, if we make sound intelligent choices about how we achieve global stability.

Of the problems we face, the questions arise about food distribution and use. Roughly 1/3rd of the grain produced here goes to feed livestock for meat production, thus cutting off a fair share of the available grain to be put on the market at an affordable level for those in food-scarce regions, so if more people decided to voluntarily eat more vegetable foodstuffs (beans, whole grain foods, etc.), then a full third more of the food production could be freed up for supplying those in need. And then there's the bio-fuel issues - devoting more food grains for alcohol and oilseed fuels is taking some of the food out of the market. While some contend this is a bad thing, I think it isn't so much that we're diverting a great deal towards fuel uses, it's that we use the energy we have so inefficiently first off, and secondly we eat too much meat here in the developed world. Solving the last two issues makes enormous sense, then devoting perhaps 10% of the cropland to fuel production would be insignificant in it's impact on available food. (plus there would be fewer clogged arteries in the West:P)...

But getting back to the gardening issue.. It just makes good sense. If everyone who has a lawn or yard, or available space, raised their own food (even a portion of it), we would greatly lessen our environmental footprint. No need to "plow" tons of fuel and fertilizer into the input side of agriculture with a garden - till once, fertilize with compost, plant, water, weed, and amend with diluted urea. Locally produced, there's no need for energy in shipping, handling, extra fertilizer (since the waste is composted & added back), and the nutritional value is superior to anything off a shelf. The savings alone is enormous - $2,000 a year, by my estimate, off the food budget for a family. With the best energy-efficient freezers or food dehydrators, it's quite easy to store the produce for year-round use, and energy costs kept to a minimum.

But in terms of global demand - solar desalinated sea water is the key. Dry regions have all they need, if only they could put it to use: Sun & Sea. Solar energy peaks in the mostly cloud-free equatorial regions, where annual average solar radiation exceeds 6 kilowatt-hours per square meter per day, and the oceans can provide vast quantities of water for irrigation if the water is obtained carefully, and the remaining brine is dried for use as table salt or for ceramic glazes. Vast desert regions, presently growing as the planet warms and soil erodes could be re-converted into the wet, lush regions they once were, and the area turned into a net food exporter, with a population of well-off farmers, if we put our efforts into making this become reality. Population growth tapers off when prosperity and stability goals are achieved, and a flourishing of commerce and economic improvement can happen, if we "prime the pump" in equatorial desert regions.

Anyhow, just my ramblings - please tell me what your thoughts are!;)

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