Is more technology the solution to world hunger?

The last two weeks featured COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. World leaders and government bureaucrats met to address challenges associated with climate change. The main goals for the conference were to

  1. Secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach,
  2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats,
  3. Mobilize finance, and
  4. Work together to deliver.

The predictable reaction from critics is that countries did not promise enough, and they will not be able to even deliver on the promises they made. 

Will COP26 change anything? Which nations are leading productive change? Which ones are lagging behind? What are the prospects of success? We need answers to these questions. We live in uncertain times.

In this post I address a specific aspect of the problem. How does climate change affect world hunger? Many of us are well-fed. Some of us are too well-fed. Too many of us do not receive enough food to live without hunger. As climates change, marginal lands become less productive. Crops that used to grow well in a particular region no longer produce as well. Trees producing fruit and nuts do not yield their previous bounties. Annual crops can move to more favorable climes. Research on different soil types, varieties, and pest pressures requires careful attention to maintain yields. We cannot transplant trees en masse. Planting new trees take time to enjoy the fruits of our labors.

We live in a world that appears to be getting hotter. Climate scientists warn us of rising temperatures, rising seas, and catastrophic events. Greta Thunberg has become the face of climate-change activism. Many others are skeptics. The goal is to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050. Is this goal even possible? Optimists like Bill Gates say that we can meet the goal. He states the solution requires more technology. He recommends expansion of GMOs and nuclear power. Opposition comes from many sources  advocating a return to the soil through conservation.

I arrived on the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst in the summer of 1977. The debate about global climate change was a topic of heated exchange on the campus at that time. I attended a fair on campus that summer complete with geodesic domes and prophets of doom. Exhibits showed me how to survive the coming climate disaster. One of my Food Science professors showed me how global warming was only a cyclical event. Temperatures would soon decrease. From a viewpoint over 40 years ago, it appears that the prophets of doom were closer to being right. Climate change was coming. Was conservation or technology the answer? It’s a relevant question today.

As climate change and population trends continue, challenges posed by climate and hunger intertwine. Like many budding food scientists in the 60s I sought to feed the world. I highlighted this ideal in my scholarship applications. I was young and naïve. Little of my professional work as a food scientist addressed world hunger. Much of my research focused on improving quality fresh fruits and vegetables. My interest in feeding the hungry led me to food pantry work during my retired life.

Income inequality is at the heart of food maldistribution. Some countries are very rich. Other countries are very poor. Poverty exists in wealthy countries, and wealth exists in impoverished countries. Is it possible to reduce income inequality within countries and across the globe? We may see it long term, but not in my lifetime. We hear that the threat to the world from climate change must happen by 2050. If so income inequality will need to take a back seat. And what would a world with income equality look like? One article suggests that the earth can support two billion people at a Western European lifestyle? I don’t know how accurate the projection is. What happens to the estimated additional 5.8 billion on earth today? It is clear that 7.8 billion people cannot live a suburban American lifestyle. I read 1984 at the height of the pandemic. One major point Orwell made is that the rich and powerful will not give up their wealth and control.

An expanding world population adds to the problem. It is growing faster that we imagine. Dwight Eisenhower was President when 3 billion people populated the earth. We reached 4 billion by the time Richard Nixon resigned. In the Ronald Reagan years world population passed the 5 billion mark. Bill Clinton ushered in a world with 6 billion. A world with 7 billion people featured Barack Obama as chief of state. We will live in world of 8 billion people in the next year or two. Growth is slowing down. That is an increase of more than 5 billion in my lifetime! How many in yours? Many population scientists expect growth to level reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. That is, of course, unless many people die of climate- and starvation-related issues!

Limited resources cannot meet needs in countries expecting the greatest increases in population. Greatest increases in population will occur in regions suffering from malnutrition. It will not be enough to improve current practices to meet the food needs in these countries. We will need to produce more food on land degraded by climate change.  The United Nations hosted a Food Systems Summit in New York in September, 2021. Note the battle lines between agroecology and biotechnology. Raj Patel supports the former; Bill Gates the latter. The discussion launched in the 60s between The Wizard and the Prophet continues today. Will the solution be technology or conservation?

Technology allowed population around the world to expand. Technology is a major part of the problem. Would we worry about emissions if the internal combustion engine didn’t exist? We would not be burning coal and oil without electricity. Modern medicine accounts for many living souls today that would not be here without it. The Precautionary Principle states that

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

Think of the damage that Facebook and Tick-Tock do to mental health. The internet does not meet the Precautionary Principle’s criteria. As highlighted at COP26 richer countries cause the most problems. Poorer countries bear the greatest burdens. How do we develop fair international solutions on climate change and world hunger? The Green Revolution gave us 40 years to stave off world hunger. We failed to act. Today we face impending famines driven by food shortages and climate change. Would adopting conservation methods advocated at the 1977 Amherst fair have helped? Perhaps. It appears too late to go back to those days and solutions. Africa needs help now. It can’t feed its people today, and its population continues to grow. Greater use of GMOs may be part of the solution.

African landscape complete with wildlife
Africa needs help now. Photo taken from a postcard mailed to me from water.org 

Is technology all we have left to survive? To me the answer is YES. The clock is ticking and most of us will be alive in 2050. That is the year of reckoning posed by many climate and hunger scholars. Will the world have its act together by then? Politicians are unable to act. In many countries the population divides on how we should act. Many of us ignore the problem. In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster Bill Gates tells us that solar and wind power won’t be enough by themselves to get to net-zero. He indicates that we must include nuclear power in the mix to achieve that goal. The Green New Deal does not endorse nuclear power. Rather, it would dismantle all nuclear plants. I see no unified American approach. Is it too late for agroecology, conservation, and individual efforts? If so, the answer is government support of technology and rapid deployment of that technology. We have dithered too much and too long. The time to act is now.

Next week: Food stories in the news

3 thoughts on “Is more technology the solution to world hunger?

  1. It is not an easy one to answer, but I think we have put off all other options too long. Technology may be the only chance we have to avert disaster. Even the sustainable solutions tend to be driven by technology. I would love to hear your thoughts!

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