Do we have what it takes to feed an expanding planet?

By Pia White | 13 Jul 16

The End of Plenty
Joel K. Bourne Jr.
Scribe Publications

The End of Plenty Large

In his debut book The End of Plenty, agronomist and environmental journalist Joel K. Bourne Jr. provides alarming insight into the catastrophe lying at the intersection of climate change, agriculture, global population growth and poverty. His background in agronomy and farming experience guide his comprehensive and affecting exploration of the complexities of meeting the most basic need of the 7.4 billion people on the planet – the need for food.

Despite our relatively brief existence on this planet, we as humans have drastically changed the world around us. Everything about the way we currently live is unsustainable, from our numbers to our extreme consumption. We know this. But early in this book, we are reminded that we have known this for a long time.

The author introduces demographer Robert Malthus and the theory of population he published in 1798. The crux of his proposition is that the rate of human reproduction will eventually outstrip food production and when it inevitably does, famine and poverty will follow.

Bourne Jr.’s book paints a startlingly clear picture of the damage that has been wrought by the pursuit of increased crop yields and livestock.

This sobering idea is the thread running through each chapter in book, which discretely explores different topics. The first half of the book covers a number of alarming food-related trends and phenomena around the world – from China’s extreme pork consumption to the devastating global impact of the rise of biofuel in the US.

The second half of the book chronicles the endeavours of those who are trying to find ways to increase food production more sustainably. Bourne Jr. visits an aquaculturist attempting to vastly expand the land available for food production by farming fish in the open ocean. He also visits organic farms rejecting prevalent fertiliser dependency, and improving soil quality and outputs in the process.

Ultimately though, none of these highlighted efforts relieve the uneasiness and dread generated by the earlier chapters. Bourne Jr.’s book paints a startlingly clear picture of the damage that has been wrought by the pursuit of increased crop yields and livestock. The earth’s arable land is degraded and shrinking, the planet is experiencing more frequent and severe bouts of extreme weather, and farmers are facing ever-increasing varieties of resistant pest and weeds.

Bourne Jr. makes a compelling argument that to feed a global population that is expected to swell by two million people by 2050, drastic changes need to be made to both food production and consumption. Yet despite presenting some compelling innovations in sustainable agriculture, he leaves the question of our capacity to change considerably more open.

He concludes his book with a reference to an Old Testament reading in which the prophet Jonah warns the Ninevites to change or “be obliterated”. While the Ninevites repented and were spared, it seems doubtful that our society – with its propensity to ignore the warnings of scientists and researchers – can change quickly enough or to the extent necessary to avoid the poverty, famine and conflict that follow global food shortages.