So Can We Really Feed the World? Yes — And Here’s How

Nathanael Johnson

If the world goes on with business as usual, there’s not going to be enough food to feed everyone by 2050. A lot of things would have to change.

And a lot of things should change! Currently, the daily effort to satisfy the collective appetite of humanity is causing deforestation, erosion, extinction, and massive release of greenhouse gases. In changing how it feeds itself, humankind can drive down poverty, sequester greenhouse gas, conserve wild environments, and put organic matter back into the soil. All of that is plausibly within reach.

Let’s start with population. If we can’t get a handle on our swelling numbers, everything else is moot. So what would make human population level off, or even fall? There are always political measures — like China’s one-child policy — but laws like that are hard to pass and even harder to enforce. They restrict freedom while producing terrible unintended consequences — like families getting rid of girls.

There’s another option that actually works better: Improve the lives of poor women and children.

“If you want parents to make the choice to reduce their number of offspring, there’s no better way than making sure those offspring survive,” said Joel Cohen, author of the magisterial book How Many People Can the Earth Support? “There’s no example of decline in fertility that has not been preceded by a decline in child mortality that I know of.”

This is counterintuitive. But there is abundant evidence of this pattern all over the world, regardless of religion. Where children die and women are repressed, population booms. Where children thrive, and women are empowered, population growth stops.

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See also: How a national food policy could save millions of lives »

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