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Published in Issue No. 125, page 39 to 40 - (5802) characters
Feeding the Ten Billion-Plants and Population Growth
The author, Lloyd T. Evans, is a well-known plant physiologist with a large number of papers to his credit. His early career included a period at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, followed by a fellowship at California Institute of Technology. He then joined CSIRO in Australia and rose to become its Chief. He has published several books, among them Crop Physiology and Crop Evolution, Adaptation and Yield, that have become standard textbooks.
This book is fascinating, as it links population growth with agricultural innovation that has gone on for the past 10 000 years. The establishment of agriculture, which occurred in the Near East about 8000 BC, permitted humans to space childbirth at much shorter intervals than during the hunter–gatherer phase of human existence. The sedentary life-style meant more births as the need to shift from one camp to another was eliminated, with farming being carried out on banks of rivers like the Tigris, Euphrates and the Jordan.
It took millions of years for the human population to arrive at the first billion, yet less than 200 years to reach our current population of more than six billion. However, despite all the doomsday predictions of Malthus and others that were to follow, human population has not outstripped food supply. Not yet anyway. But there is no doubt that the world is today overburdened by the burgeoning human population.
Evans tells a spellbinding story of human history right from the time of the ‘silent millennia’—the Pleistocene era to the modern day. The survivors of the former period, the people who live solely by hunting and gathering today, such as the aborigines of Australia and the !King bushmen of the Kalahari, have been intensively studied by anthropologists to gain an insight into the type of lives led by our ancestors before agriculture. However, today’s hunter–gatherers are found only in the poorest and most difficult environments where agriculture is nearly impossible.
Evans speculates on the forces operating 10 000 years ago in the Levant that drew mankind to agriculture. He has named four:
(1) An abundance of wild grasses suitable for domestication. It helped that some of these wild grasses were already consumed as food.
(2) A change in climate that favoured plant domestication, such as a rise in CO2 levels, an increase in seasonality and possibly greater prominence of grasses in the flora.
(3) Desire for a more sedentary lifestyle than allowed by hunting and gathering.
(4) Population pressure.
Evans concludes that the world population has long since passed the point where reliance on a landrace-based self-sufficient, individual smallholder farmer, sustenance agriculture for food is possible. Reaching a population of three billion was a turning point in human agri-history. Since then, increases in food production have come not from increases in arable land (nearly as much land has been lost due to desertification as has been gained due to deforestation) but from higher yields of the new dwarf high-yielding varieties. The doubling of world population since then has been possible only because of the large amount of money spent on agricultural research, investment that has brought about yield increases to keep pace with those of population, so far.
Finally, we come to the key question posed by Evans. Will the earth be able to feed a population of 10 billion in 2050? It depends on certain unforeseen factors says Evans. Climatic changes, as shown in the book, have been responsible for abandonment of agriculture in certain areas and its establishment in other areas. But now we face an array of global climate changes rather than a single regional one. The consequences for agriculture of this phenomenon are difficult to assess at this time. Global warming and the melting of the ice packs at the two extremes of the earth may affect developing countries much more than the highly industrialized countries. Two other limitations that may curtail food production also loom large on the horizon according to Evans: (a) water for irrigation and (b) limits of yields of our staple food crops. However, there is some cause for optimism based on the development of new varieties through genetic engineering and, of course, better crop management techniques, including improved storage facilities to reduce post-harvest losses (post-harvest losses in India are sometimes as high as 30%). Feeding 10 billion people is possible in times of global climatic changes, Evans says, provided some equity is brought about in the face of social and regional imbalances. This may yet be a greater challenge than mere increases in food production in the fertile lands and mechanized farming of the Northern Hemisphere.
This book would be invaluable to a wide variety of readers. I highly recommend it to farmers and agriculturists, anthropologists, archaeobotanists, conservationists, genetic resources scientists, plant breeders, social scientists, policy makers and others. The book is presented in a easily readable manner, without the use of too many scientific terms. It occupies pride of place on my bookshelf.
This reviewer, for one, is cautiously optimistic about our capacity to feed the world’s projected human population of 10 billion by 2050.
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