Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fill the earth: population and food

Recently the topic of the world's population was mentioned in a comment thread. Right now "overpopulation" is more of a regional issue than a global issue: there are some regions that have difficulty supporting their populations while others have surplus to export. As a whole, there is not a problem with the world's population having outrun its capacity to produce food. But when considering the possibility that the world's food supply might run tight in the future, occasionally there are drastic suggestions such as mandating abortions to enforce population caps. So it seems right to mention that we have more moderate options available to us before we consider drastic measures.

Larger gains: Increase food production
  1. Increase farmland available for food crops by using some of the land currently planted with non-edible crops such as coffee, tea, and tobacco (or opium, marijuana, or cocaine where applicable)
  2. Make better use of public land by making plantings in highway interchange "cloverleafs" and placing productive trees in median-plantings
  3. Create incentives for private land and landscaping to include food-producing plants
  4. Encourage individuals with productive plants to harvest and use the produce rather than letting it go to waste
  5. Encourage production of foods that produce optimal nutrition and food volume per acre

Smaller gains: Reduce food use
  1. Actually use left-overs
  2. Reduce household over-purchasing of food which leads to food spoilage
  3. Reduce over-eating
  4. Create incentives for restaurants to reduce portion sizes to an amount typically eaten
  5. Restrict the number of pets to reduce the total volume of food consumed by pets
  6. Make provision for large-scale sources of food scraps (e.g. restaurant waste) to be channeled back for use as livestock feed when suitable

The bigger picture: peace and sound government

Of course, there is a far larger problem in the amount of farmland that is unproductive throughout the world due to war or government corruption. There are entire nations capable of sustaining their populations and possibly capable of being food exporters who nevertheless tend to have famines because often one group burns another's crops. Peace in one more land is probably more beneficial than the "better land use" approach in several others, and better than the "well-used leftovers" approach in 10 others.

The smaller picture: re-thinking our menus

As much as I hope we can work towards peace, I also know it is not directly under our control, and that the simple things we can do here and now in our own homes are the fastest way to begin making a difference. My grandparents, who survived the Great Depression in a very poor and rural area, were masters of using every bit of food. Here's what I learned from my grandmother:
  • Old bread that's at risk to spoil makes good bread pudding
  • Or good bread crumbs for breading a piece of meat or topping a casserole
  • Or croutons
  • Or stuffing
  • Or melba toast that keeps a long time and goes well with gravy over it
  • Or a good filler for a meatloaf
  • Leftover bananas about to spoil make good banana bread
  • Or smoothies (ok, this was from my son not my grandmother, but it still works)
  • Scrap meat and vegetables make soups or stews or broths
  • The inedible cornflake crumbs at the bottom of the cornflake box make a good base for breading
  • Pickles made from watermelon rinds actually taste very good
  • When tomatoes fall off the vine and aren't fully ripe, that's when you make fried green tomatoes

The point?
Before we start restricting population, we have a long way to go in making better use of what we already have. I'm not saying that today is the today to feel bad if you throw out the stale bread instead of making it into croutons or stuffing. I'm saying remembering the thrift of previous generations and taking note of their creativity is a good thing.


Patrik said...

Yes, but the real problem is that freshwater reserves all over the world are running out, making it very difficult to continue producing the amount of food we do now.

Weekend Fisher said...

There's a problem with our water management, to be sure. Again, our stewardship is so poor at this point that it remains to be seen whether we're genuinely at risk of outpacing the fresh water availablility, or whether it's more a mismanagement of the resources. Ironically, global warming is projected to be a help in this regard by freeing up some of the water in the polar ice caps back into general circulation. But even if it did no such thing, there's a lot of room for improvement of water management.