How to Sustain the Population in 2050 — Ethically.

Hi folks! In the previous post, I looked at how we can take actions as consumers to help curb population growth. This post is about actions we can take to sustain the human population without completely destroying our planet.

Population growth fears are exploited by corporations

One of the most common abuses of the population growth issue goes something like this:

We must embrace GlobalCorp’s practices because we’re going to have 9 billion people to sustain in 2050.

If the thing in question is sustainable (for example renewable energy) then you don’t even need the population argument. If the thing in question is not sustainable — and this is often the case where the population card is played — then a rising population is a ridiculous argument to use. To adopt a non-sustainable practice to support the Earth’s human population of 2050 is insanity. Particularly considering the delicate state of our planet. If you examine the logic of this argument, the conversation might go a bit like this:

GlobalCorp: Just think of the children!

You: But what you’re suggesting is not sustainable. By definition, this practice can’t be sustained indefinitely. So, what about the children’s children?

GlobalCorp: Oh, they’re screwed! After eight decades of what we’re all doing, the <soil/oceans/forests/insects/etc.> are projected to be <degraded/dead/gone/extinct/etc.>

You: So, this is like a one-time last push to get as much out of the planet as possible to sustain a larger population? And then…

GlobalCorp: Who knows? Nobody can plan that far ahead!

You: And you’ll be dead by then anyway.

GlobalCorp: I guess so. Hang on…

<At this point you have to wait a few minutes for GC to get over a massive coughing fit brought on by a diet composed primarily of steak and cigars.>

You: Are you sure this is really about saving the children of 2050, and not at all about maximizing GlobalCorp profits right now?

GlobalCorp: Sir! Frankly I’m appalled that you should think such a thing! This conversation is over! <More coughing.>

Okay, perhaps that conversation would not have gone quite so candidly, but you get the point.

Is intensive agriculture needed to feed the population of 2050?

In the conversation above, GlobalCorp could represent an Agrochemical or Processed Food corporation arguing that we must increase yields at all cost in order to sustain the growing population. It’s often used as an argument against organic agriculture. Should we endorse this point of view? In a post on conventional versus organic bread, I looked at how the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer on intensive farms results in higher greenhouse gas emissions and eutrophication of waterways such as the Gulf of Mexico.

Yields on organic farms actually increase over time when managed well (for example, wheat rotated with legumes) and can match intensive agriculture yields in a few years. Meanwhile, what happens if intensive agriculture continues for a few decades? At a minimum: a continuation of high GHG emissions and eutrophication. Quite likely: a drop in yield due to soil depletion and unsustainability of farming practices. Entirely probable: catastrophic ecosystem collapse on both local and regional levels. This isn’t science fiction — it’s happening all the time!

The population argument has created a fear-based mindset that causes people to entertain the possibility that it’s okay to take extreme measures. For example, to treat crops with insecticides such as neonics by default because we need that extra yield. And yet, France suffered no loss in corn and sunflower yields when neonics were banned. The yield argument is often a fallacy or offers a negligible benefit with a potential downside that far outweighs the benefit. In this case, the loss of bees and other insect populations.

How will we feed the 9 billion?

The most important actions to sustaining the population are fairly obvious to most at this point. But it’s no harm to have a reminder on key things to consider as an ethical consumer. (And I do consider these factors when writing Green Stars reviews of restaurants, supermarkets and food products.)

1. Eat a plant-based diet

You probably don’t need convincing of this. Having a diet that’s derived mostly from plants is pretty much the best thing you can do if you want to live a more ethical life. An important 2016 paper looked at 500 scenarios for feeding the population at 2050 without causing further deforestation. They looked at several factors ranging from crop yields and land use to human diets — and the most important factor by far was diet. If the population generally adopted vegan or vegetarian diets then almost any of the 500 scenarios would work. If the average diet is meat-heavy then only 15% of the scenarios are possible, and they all involve intensification of the meat industry. This week, The Guardian reported on the emergence of industrial-scale beef farming in the UK.

2. Reduce food waste

The conservative estimate is that one third of our food is wasted. Tackling the “feed the world” problem via this route is much more effective than trying to increase crop yields by unsustainable means. A large percentage of planetary resources (land, energy, water) go into generating food and then, at best, we eat 66% of that food (probably only 50%) and toss the rest.

3. Reduce consumption

Reducing consumption is of course a key part of ethical consumerism. Reducing your food intake to a little less than you think you need actually increases lifespan and reduces age-related health-problems such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Besides eating less food, choosing raw ingredients over processed food can also help a lot, since the energy used in processing, packaging, refrigeration, etc. often exceeds the energy contained in the food itself!

How to reduce population growth

So, consumers can take the strategies above to do their part in sustaining the future population. And here’s a one-line recap of the previous post on a key way in which consumers can help curb global population growth:

Increase living standards in developing nations by supporting sustainable and mission-driven companies.

We can actually solve our own problems without GlobalCorp’s interference. In fact, their interference will only make our problems much, much worse.