This paper is a discussion of a debate between Julian L. Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource, and David Pimentel et al., authors of the article “Impact of Population Growth on Food Supplies and Environment”. The debate centers on the question: “Will the World Be Able to Feed Itself in the Foreseeable Future?” I will summarize each side’s argument, identify the key point over which they most basically disagree, and explain what I would like to know more about in order to arrive at my own position on the issue.
Simon argues that with our present technology, and with the technology that is still being developed, the world will easily be able to feed itself, regardless of the increasing size of its population. He explains how food production adheres to the law of supply and demand: an increase in population and income will produce a higher demand for food. For a short time some foods may become scarce. Rising food prices due to the scarcity will prompt agronomical researchers and farmers to invent better methods of producing food and therefore increase the food production. He emphasizes that this pattern can only continue if the agriculturally productive countries promote entrepreneurship and economic freedom.
Simon points out that “the capacity of food-factory production has expanded to a degree almost beyond belief.” (Simon, p. 115). He describes how hydroponic farming, which involves indoor, factory-controlled conditions, is more land efficient and produces higher quality produce than traditional farming methods. He also argues that our food supplies are not limited by the amount of sunlight falling on green plants due to the availability of nuclear as well as non-nuclear power (such as solar cells, wind, and ocean currents) to make light. Simon also names other existing technology, such as bovine growth hormone and genetically engineered plants, which he predicts “will surely produce huge commercial gains in the next century.” (Simon, p. 117).
In addition to an increase in the production of field crops, Simon also assures us that the world fish catch is rapidly increasing, and that aquaculture (fish farming) has the potential to expand exponentially. “Land is a small constraint, as catfish farming in Mississippi shows; present methods produce about 3000 pounds of fish per acre, an economic return far higher than for field crops.” (Simon, p. 118).
David Pimentel et al. disagree that the world will be able to feed itself in the foreseeable future. They point to a decreasing amount of fertile land, fresh water, energy, and biological resources needed to provide an adequate supply of food. Evidence supporting their claim includes the fact that nearly one-third of the world’s cropland is no longer being used due to erosion, and that “water shortages are reflected in the per capita decline in irrigation used for food production in all regions of the world during the past 20 years.” (Pimental et al., p. 122)
Basing their projections on reports from the U.S. Dept. of Energy, Pimentel et al. predict that the U.S. will use up all of its own oil reserves within the next 15 or 20 years, causing an over-reliance on oil importing. In addition, Pimentel et al. point out that if the U.S. population doubles in the next 60 years, its cereal and other food imports to most of the other 182 nations would have to be kept at home to meet its own food supply needs. They warn that an increased demand for food due to physical and biological constraints without an increase in food production will cause a breakdown in international trade. “At that point, food importation for the rich can only be sustained by starvation of the powerless poor.” (Pimentel el al., p. 123).
The key point over which Simon and Pimentel et al. disagree is whether or not current and new technology will be able to support the world population’s food needs. Simon contends, “Whether or not population grows exponentially, subsistence grows at an even faster exponential rate (largely but not entirely because of population growth.) And capacity to improve other aspects of the standard of living, beyond subsistence, grows at a still faster exponential rate, due largely to the growth of knowledge.” (Simon, p. 119).
Pimentel, et al. believe that “improved technology will assist in more effective management and use of resources, but it cannot produce an unlimited flow of those vital natural resources that are the raw materials for sustained agricultural production.” (Pimentel, p. 124). In other words, people cannot make topsoil or water. Pimentel et al. fail to mention such possible alternate solutions such as hydroponic farming or aquaculture.
There are a number of things that I would want clarified before I could arrive at my own position on this issue. First, I would want to know how much “lag time” is occurring or will occur when the demand for food (or certain kinds of food, such as cereal), exceeds the supply. (“There is always some lag before supply responds to additional demand, which may mean that some will suffer.” – Simon, p. 120). Many people in the developing countries ARE currently going hungry. Will advances in technology, as well as changes in our social and economic systems, give us the ability to stop and prevent worldwide hunger? What would these social and economic changes look like?
Another assertion by Simon that needs to be discussed further is the cost and dependability of using artificial light and nuclear power to farm hydroponically. It seems like a promising way to deal with the increased demand for food, but will the cost for this type of production be too high for developing countries? How will these countries be able to pay for food that is imported to them?
Simon asserts that hydroponic produce “looks good and tastes good” (Simon, p. 116), but will time prove it to be as safe and healthy as food grown the traditional way? (e.g. NutraSweet, which has been proven to not be totally safe, vs. sugar.). Pimentel et al. point out the threat to our environment and biodiversity caused by overpopulation. Would a greater focus on conservation and an effort to reduce over-consumption and pollution on the part of developed countries make enough of a difference to still have adequate natural resources? (Is it possible to have it both ways: technologically advanced/safe food production and naturally produced food?)
There also seems to be a discrepancy between Simon’s assertion that the annual fish catch is continuing to rise and Pimentel et al.’s statement that “Per capita fish catch has not increased even though the size and speed of fishing vessels has improved.” (Pimentel, p. 125). Pimentel et al. also did not address the potential of aquaculture or hydroponic farming to supply food, or the capability of technology to produce artificial substitutes, even though they were able to gather a large amount of other data from such reputable sources as World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
In summary, I would like to obtain more factual information concerning actual and projected shortages of natural resources. I need more evidence that hydroponic and artificial food farming is more than adequate to meet the demand for food. Finally, I need to further understand the effects that population growth is having on our environment.