As "End of Plenty" Draws Near, a Renewed Call for More Sustainable Food

Sep 29, 2015

As the world gets richer and more well-fed, people move away from farms, and new demands emerge.

Agricultural developments in the mid-20th century catapulted the farming industry to new levels of production. But that "green revolution" also fostered a population boom that's once again forcing farmers to innovate. 

Beware the "population monster." That's what Norman Bourlaug, Nobel laureate known as the father of the green revolution, said in 1970 was the biggest threat to keeping our future world fed.

"Sure enough, almost on key, around 2000, the great yield gains that we'd made with wheat and rice and corn, started to plateau," said Joel Bourne, author of The End of Plenty, speaking on WNPR's Where We Live.

"Scientists now say we have to increase our grain production for these three basic crops that provide the bulk of the world's calories -- rice, wheat and corn -- by 70 to 110 percent by 2050," Bourne said. "As one plant breeder likes to say, we're going to have to learn to produce more grain in the next 40 years than we have since the beginning of civilization and that's the great challenge we now face."

But as the world gets richer and more well-fed -- people move away from farms -- and demand jumps for costly foods like dairy and meat. Bourne said that's creating a less obvious conundrum: a rising standard of living that snowballs with population rise into an ever-more intense demand for a stagnated pool of resources.

How do we fix it? Big picture, Bourne said we can work to reign in population. More practically, he said we have to start broadening our palate -- and yes, maybe that means eating things lower on the food chain, like bugs, or kelp.

"It's very nutritious. It grows easily. It grows very quickly," Bourne said. "We now have our first commercial kelp farm in the United States off the coast of Maine that's producing kelp slaw, kelp salad -- you know, introducing these new foods that are much more sustainable than corn, into the diet -- is critically important."