DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off today. In the 1960s, the farmers of Egypt grew enough wheat to feed the country and export some to its neighbors. But as the country's population grew, its farmers couldn't keep up, and Egypt is now the world's largest importer of wheat. When international food prices spiked in 2008, there were bread riots in the streets of Cairo. Our guest Joel Bourne says Egypt's problems illustrate a terrifying fact facing all humanity - the world is running out of food.
In his new book, Bourne chronicles the trends making it likely we'll see more hunger and malnutrition in coming decades. While the Earth's population is growing rapidly, our ability to feed it is undermined by a loss of arable land due to climate change, growing water shortages, the use of valuable farmland to grow biofuels and the fact that many of us eat so much meat, which is a highly inefficient way to use the grain we grow. Bourne says there are some promising developments and ways to meet the threat, but time is running out.
Joel Bourne got a degree in agronomy before becoming a journalist. He's a contributing writer to National Geographic and has written for Audubon, Science and Outside Magazine. His new book is called "The End Of Plenty: The Race To Feed A Crowded World."
Well, Joe Bourne, welcome to FRESH AIR. You grew up in rural North Carolina - little town - and you write that you always thought you'd be a farmer. Why? What appealed to you about it?
JOEL BOURNE: Well, you know, my father, who was a small-town attorney - I always wanted to be a farmer. He actually farmed my grandfather's land when he came back from World War II. My grandfather discouraged him from doing that and made him go to law school. But he spent the bulk of his life and most of his - nearly all of his free time out working on the farm where he would drag me with him. So I grew up working in tobacco, chopping cotton and peanuts, hunting and fishing in the streams around the farm. So when I - it became time for me to choose a college, I only picked one. I was going to - I pretty much knew I was going to be a farmer. And so I applied to one university, N.C. State, and got into the Ag program in 1981.
DAVIES: So you studied agronomy, and how did the field strike you?
BOURNE: You know, it was interesting, I landed there just happy as I could be. I thought it was like Br'er Rabbit - I'd been thrown into the briar patch - loved the guys I was around, admired my professors. And, you know - but about the end of my sophomore year I really started having qualms. I started sort of losing my interest in production agriculture. It seemed like it was much more based on chemistry and herbicides and things that I just wasn't as interested in. And I really started losing faith in it.
DAVIES: So it was agribusiness as opposed to the kind of farming that you'd seen as a kid?
BOURNE: Well, I had two different generations. My grandfather loved to hunt on the farm. And so he liked everything to be brushy and, you know, messy - much like the organic farms we see today, which are certainly not weed-free. And, of course, there was tons of wildlife on the farm. He was a quail hunter, so he loved to hunt. But when he passed away in 1972 - this was right during Earl Butz, the secretary of agriculture, who was imploring American farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow, that we were going to turn - you know, really flex the muscle of American and agribusiness and start feeding the world.
And so my father, who was a good conservationist, but also, you know, an admirer of that way of thinking, cleaned up the farm and really bought into this whole mantra of the Green Revolution. So, you know, every - all the old fencerows and hedgerows that provided such great habitat for wildlife went away. I took down many of the cattle fences myself, sold all the cows, and basically, we went into major production agriculture.
DAVIES: So you decided not to become a farmer in the end. You write that, you know, you would've had to borrow a lot of money to get into a field that didn't appeal to you that much. What did you do instead?
BOURNE: Well, it was really funny. I graduated in 1985. It was the midst of the first great farm crisis in the United States, where crop prices were terribly low. And Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp and Neil Young were sponsoring Farm Aid. Their first Farm Aid concert was the year I graduated because so many farmers were going bankrupt. So I had taken some English classes and journalism classes and really liked it. I ended up traveling a lot after college, going to New Zealand - worked on a dairy farm there. Went to Australia - worked on a big wheat farm there, and then into Indonesia, where I watched rice production throughout those beautiful rice paddies in Bali and Java. But when I got back home, as much as I loved the farm, I just couldn't find myself going back into farming. So I went and became a journalist instead.
DAVIES: You say early in the book that the world is running out of food. And I'd like you to begin by just giving us an overview of some of the dimensions of the problem and some of the pretty scary statistics that tell the story.
BOURNE: Sure. Well, in - I've been reporting on these sort of environmental skirmishes at National Geographic since about 2000. So I was looking - I reported on, you know, the drought in California. I reported on wetland loss down in Louisiana, and I'd done several issues on climate change where I was either editing or writing stories myself. So - and then in - when the food crisis hit in 2007-2008, all these sort of disparate brushfires around the world - it really came together.
And so suddenly, you had an instance where the world began consuming fairly consistently more of these major grains than it was producing, whittling down stockpiles to levels we haven't seen since the 1970s. So, for example, in the 1970s, we consumed or utilized more grain than we ate only about four years out of the decade. In the drier '80s, it was about five years. Since 2000, we've consumed or utilized more of these feed grains in eight of the first 12 years of the decade. So really, we're starting to see the demand pressures outstrip our ability to produce food. All this while our yield gains, that have been spectacular since Norman Borlaug introduced the Green Revolution agriculture in the '50s and '60s, started to plateau.
So it - just as our demands are starting to rise, we're starting to plateau in the amount of grain we're getting per hectare, while things like climate change are really starting to hammer us. So we're looking at, you know, these major disruptions of our food supply. Now, there was a heat wave in Europe in 2003 that killed, like, 73,000 people in Europe. And yet what - that one made headlines all over the world, but what people didn't realize was that a third of the wheat and grain and fruit crops were decimated that year.
You know, Russia has had these enormous droughts events where they've lost up to a third to half of their crop. Here in the United States, we've had 2012-2013, you know, we had the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days - cost us $30 billion. So - and what we're dealing with is sort of the new normal. You know, the researchers say that now we're going to have to, because of the increased demand from population growth, increased meat consumption in developing parts of the world, that we're going to have to double our grain production, our food production, by 2050 to make sure everyone's reasonably fed. And yet, climate change is just starting to really hammer it down, so we're in a bit of a pinch.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with science writer Joel Bourne. His new book about the challenges of feeding a growing world population is called "The End Of Plenty: The Race To Feed A Crowded World." You know, you write in the book that 80 to 90 percent of the calories we eat come from three crops - wheat, rice and corn. And in the 1960s, there was this dramatic increase in agricultural yields that we call the Green Revolution. Just tell us the story in brief. What happened?
BOURNE: Well, it was very interesting. After World War II, there was a lot of hunger in the world. Up to 30 percent of the world's population was chronically malnourished. Mexico was having a real problem feeding its people. More - they were depending on more and more imports from the United States. So the Rockefeller Foundation, at the request of the vice president of the United States, went down to Mexico to see if they could do anything about it.
And at that time, a young plant physiologist named Norman Borlaug was working for DuPont. And they recruited him to go down and start a wheat breeding program in Mexico, first to start to deal with wheat rust, which was this scourge. It was decimating yields down there, and they were having difficult problems with. So Borlaug went down and started this massive breeding program. And his goal initially was successful. I mean, he defeated wheat rust, developing a suite of genes that are still used in most commercial wheat varieties today.
But in the meantime, he also developed a deal where he transformed wheat into this tall, wispy plant that tended to not yield so well and fall over to this very short-stemmed plant that if you gave it enough nitrogen, enough phosphorus, enough water, it would yield like crazy. So he revolutionized, with these heavy input, chemical intensive agriculture, our ability to feed ourselves. So even though the population is nearly triple since he started his program in the 1950s, you know, we have more than kept up with this massive influx of wheat. And his same techniques were used in the production of new types of rice, where they created dwarf rice varieties that did much the same thing and were equally successful and just explosive yield growth.
DAVIES: And some people even believe that the decline in poverty and the increase of the health of tens of millions of people is what allowed a number of developing countries to industrialize.
BOURNE: That's right. Jeff Sachs has been one of the big - at Columbia - the economist has been one - is one of the strongest proponents of that theory. That, you know, you reduced food prices so much in these parts of the world that were so desperate - Southeast Asia particularly and Latin America - that you not only allowed them to eat healthier and to spend more money on a more varied diet, but you also - and this is part of the social cost of the Green Revolution. You moved a lot of these guys off the farm, these small, less efficient farmers who provided the labor for what became, you know, the Asian Tiger phenomena or, you know, even China and India becoming the great manufacturing powerhouses of the world that they're becoming. So it had a tremendous impact. It was, you know, it's sort - equivalent to the Industrial Revolution that occurred during the time of Malthus, who was one of the first people to write about this relationship between population and food.
DAVIES: OK, so applied science gives us enormous yields in food production and reduces hunger around the world, makes us healthier, but there were downsides. What were they?
BOURNE: There certainly were downsides. I mean, now we've got rampant fertilizer running into our wetlands and streams. And we've created plants that thrive, but only with these high input type of scenarios. So they need water, they need a lot of fertilizer and they also need, because you're growing a lot of plants close together, they need a fair number of pesticides in order to keep things - insects and weeds - at bay. All of these things end up in our waterways, end up in our watersheds, and now, of course, we're seeing dead zones at the end of the Mississippi every year the size of New Jersey, Connecticut. You're seeing them all over the world. There's, like, something like 300 million square kilometers of coastal zones that are now every year dead zones because of this algal bloom that's - it's fueled by all this fertilizer going off into the water. So that has led to an enormous cost.
DAVIES: So we have all this productivity, but it's caused harmful environmental and health effects and now can't keep up with the growth in the world's population. I want to talk about some other dimensions of the problem and one of them is the amount of arable land that is used to produce biofuels. These are, you know, alternatives to gas or gasoline as we look for more energy sources to run cars and other equipment. To what extent are biofuels, like corn ethanol, a part of the problem here?
BOURNE: Sure. Well, this has been a hugely controversial issue because we had these huge subsidy programs from the government that came in to kickstart the biofuel industry. And these are - this is basically - in the United States it's ethanol made from corn and it now takes up 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop every year. So it's an enormous amount of land devoted to basically feeding our cars. We also make biodiesel out of things like soybean, canola, rapeseed, which is more popular in the United States - I mean, sorry, in Europe where about half the cars run on diesel. So over there they've had a huge, like, 8 to 12 percent of their arable land devoted to biofuel crops, canola and sunflower seeds, things like that. And even though the biofuel industry disputes this hotly, most of the economists in the world, between the World Bank and the IMF and the OECD, point their fingers squarely at biofuels as having a major impact on driving up food prices around the word.
DAVIES: And the reasons that's happening is that as gasoline prices go up, as crude oil prices go up, that provides an incentive for farmers to make money by growing biofuels. So you essentially now have food prices linked directly to energy prices.
BOURNE: Exactly. So now grain prices, especially those that are related to biofuels, are directly related to the price of - of the extremely volatile price of oil. So now we've endured some nice low oil prices over the last few years, but anyone who thinks they're going to continue is probably going to be in a rude awakening. So as soon as energy prices start to go back up, you're going to see rises in grain prices because of this direct connection between fuel and biofuel.
DAVIES: The other side of the equation in this problem is how many mouths there will be to feed in coming decades. What trends are we seeing in population growth?
BOURNE: Well - and again, this is the scariest thing - the U.N. Population Unit, which provides the basic estimates for population growth that most of the experts look at, you know, has been ramping up its figures, its sort of median figure, for population - world population - by 2050 in the last three estimates. So, you know, 2000 - 2009 we were only supposed to get about 8.9 billion. 2011 - now 9.3 billion. 2012 - now it's up to 9.6 billion. So 9.6 billion people is their median level, which is typically their most accurate, by 2050, rising to almost 11 billion by the end of the century. So we are looking at, you know - as one planet reader at Purdue University said, we're looking at having to grow as much food in the next forty years as we have since agriculture began 10,000 years ago. It is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced, and we have to do it without destroying the water, the oceans, the soils, that we all depend on. It's just - it's a staggering challenge.
DAVIES: Joel Bourne's book is "The End Of Plenty: The Race To Feed A Crowded World." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is science writer Joel Bourne. His new book about the challenges of feeding a growing world population is called "The End Of Plenty: The Race To Feed A Crowded World."
So let's talk about some ways that we might deal with this challenge and some promising trends that you've identified. You know, decades ago, we had at this Green Revolution, which dramatically increased the productivity of agriculture. And one thing, of course, would be terrific would be if that could happen again. And there's been this progress in genetically modifying seeds and plants. It's very controversial. They're banned in some countries. What's the prospect that that would give us an enormous increase in yield that will help us feed more people?
BOURNE: Well, this is part of that great conundrum that Norman Borlaug mentioned when this technology sort of started coming in in the 1970s. There was this great hope that the ability to transfer genes from all these different species would create this, you know - create another Green Revolution. It was going to save us from where we were heading in terms of population and demand. Unfortunately, even though there have been some environmental benefits to GMOs, and they haven't really caused the dramatic health or environmental damage that some of the critics have been worried about, they haven't produced that much yield growth either.
So conventionally bred crops are producing just as high a yields as GMOs. We haven't seen any of this sort of dramatic rise that we saw during Borlaug's era, where we got a doubling - almost tripling - of global yield production. It just hasn't happened. So many people are thinking, you know, maybe the yield switch is not one we can genetically manipulate. There's only a certain amount of sunlight coming into plants that can be converted into seed. Maybe we're starting to see this sort of yield cap. And even Borlaug, himself, said that the Green Revolution would only give us sort of 30 years before it would begin to play out. And almost on cue in 2000 - 30 years after he won the Nobel Peace Prize - you started to see our yields start to flatten out. So we've had no yield growth in wheat and rice basically during the entire first of the 21st century.
DAVIES: Now, there have been some genetically modified seeds developed by corporations which have saved money, have allowed them to make some crops more resistant to certain pesticide, et cetera but no big yield increases. But as the costs of genetic research has declined, more universities, more nonprofits are taking this on. Are there real prospects that you could find ways to modify plants and seeds to really increase productivity in some crops?
BOURNE: Yeah, absolutely. And this is one of the great hopes that the, you know, the scientists at these land-grant universities and foundations will save us with this new technology. Unfortunately, it's - even though it's now available to them because of the reduction of costs. I mean, you can now sequence a genome on a computer not much more powerful than your smartphone, according to one of the researchers I spoke to. You know, it cost them $99, which is enormously affordable for them. And they have made wonderful strides. Researchers at UC Davis have developed a flood-resistant rice that can withstand two weeks of being inundated and still come back and produce a crop. This has been enormously popular and successful in Southeast Asia, where a lot of the rice is grown in very flood-prone areas.
Now the big sort of holy grail of the GMO nonprofits is to create something called C4 Rice. This is a type of high-yielding rice that has the potential to, you know, boost rice yields by almost 50 percent with - by using the same amount of fertilizer, water and all of the inputs. But even though they're working very hard on it, it's still, according to the researchers I spoke to, 20 to 30 years from the farmers' fields. So again, this stuff is - all the potential of the genetic manipulation seems to be just out of our reach, just out of the farmers' hands in terms of yield. So we're going to have to solve this problem before those wonder seeds, those miracle seeds, get to us.
DAVIES: Joel Bourne's book is "The End Of Plenty: The Race To Feed A Crowded World." After a break, he'll tell us about some trends that could change the world food picture, among them - new research in organic farming and attempts to farm seafood offshore. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off today. We're speaking with writer Joel Bourne, whose new book argues that humanity faces the real prospect that the world will start running out of food in coming decades. Bourne says a host of factors from climate change to bad decisions about the use of farmland and especially uncontrolled population growth threaten to generate increasingly severe food crises. He says there are some promising developments which could help, but time is running out. His book is called "The End Of Plenty."
You write about organic farming, which, you know, a lot of us think as sort of a niche activity for people who can afford to pay more to get locally-grown, organically-raised food. Help us understand the basics here. I mean, what do we mean when we say organic farming? What kind of inputs go into non-organic farming that are left out of organic farming? What does it do for the soil, and how can it be used on a wider scale?
BOURNE: Sure. So typically - we had an organic standards act passed in the early 2000s which bans sort of chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, GMO seeds. So everything that organic farmers put on their crops has to pass through a certain standard. It has to be - come from a natural source essentially. It's this focus on increasing organic matter and fertility of the soil so that it grows robust plants that can defend themselves from weeds or insect pests instead of focusing on maximizing the seed production, and, you know, there've been several broad-scale studies looking at yields of organic and conventional agriculture, and typically organic yields 12 to 20 percent less than high-input agriculture, but it really varies on the crop and where you grow it. Some crops, there's almost no yield difference. It's going to make good crops every year and, more importantly, it's going to make farmers more money every year, year in, year out, something that you can do, you know, for millennia.
DAVIES: And less vulnerable to bad weather events?
BOURNE: Yeah, in drought conditions almost, you know, they found that organic - because of this extra organic matter in the soil, which it creates this wonderful sponge-like texture - the organic crops are typically much more resistant to drought than conventional crops.
DAVIES: You write about some other things, including what you call the blue revolution, the idea of dramatically expanding the farming of seafood, including farms in the ocean. What do you see there?
BOURNE: Well, this is a dream that Jacques Cousteau had back in the '70s, that we would stop being hunters and gatherers of the ocean, which is terribly inefficient, and actually becoming farmers of the sea. The focus here that I've written about is on these sort of novel, new ways where agriculture can really pump out an enormous amount of good, healthy protein with very little impact on the aquatic environment. So one of the examples was an offshore fish farm I visited down in Panama where they're really in the deep water - eight miles off the coast of Panama, off the Panama shelf - and they're growing these cobia in what's called the oligotrophic zone of the ocean, very low nutrient area.
DAVIES: What are cobia? That's a fish species?
BOURNE: Cobia is this white - beautiful white sport fish that's caught by anglers in the southeast of the United States, but it's never been commercially fished because it doesn't really school. It's very difficult for fishermen to catch it, but it's a wonderful agriculture species - grows fast, very healthy, has a buttery white fillet, and since it has no swim bladder, it uses the oils, the fish oils in its body to help it float, so it has as much of these wonderful omega-3 fatty acids as salmon. So this young farmer has invested in his life savings, and he's an entrepreneur, to build this enormous fish farm off the coast of Panama. If it's successful - and no one has yet made any money farming in in the deep offshore waters, most agriculture farms are either in freshwater or they're very close to shore - but if he's successful, it could really open up vast swaths of the ocean to fairly low-impact agriculture that could pump out an enormous amount of good, healthy, low-fat, you know, protein to a world that desperately needs it.
DAVIES: What does a deep water fish farm look like? Is it, like, huge vertical nets out under the waves?
BOURNE: Oh, it's very cool. He's got these - he's got, like, eight or 12 of these huge fish pens that look like old gyroscopes we used to play with as children, and yet they're covered in Kevlar netting, and they sink. Then they typically subsist about 60 feet below the surface of the ocean. So he had one hurricane that was, like, a cat. 4 hurricane that went through one of his test farms, didn't lose a single fish. You know, they're down deep below so the ocean energy won't tear them up. So it's an incredible thing. So I went diving in one of these things with this entrepreneur - O'Hanlon was his name - and it's an incredible experience. You're down there, you know, floating around in that pen with 30,000 fish, and yet they were all calm. They didn't seem stressed. It wasn't, you know, the water was incredibly clear. It just seemed like a wonderful way to grow this type of protein for the world.
DAVIES: Are there promising ideas in irrigation and water conservation that will help that?
BOURNE: You know, absolutely. I mean, we waste half the water we apply to crops in general. I mean, we're still using, in many parts of world, this flood irrigation we've used since, you know, we started cutting ditches in the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, so our current use of water is incredibly inefficient. However, I interviewed one of the fellows on the cusp of this, a Stanford engineering grad, who was developing this ultra-cheap micro-irrigation that he's selling to farmers in India and China. And, again, this is stuff he's designed basically out of the same stuff we make these cheap plastic bags out of. He's got a couple of PVC tubes and a barrel at the end and, you know, he can sell this stuff to farmers and get 90 percent water use efficiency out of it at very low costs and again...
DAVIES: So it applies water evenly to plants so you don't waste it? Is that the idea?
BOURNE: Yeah, essentially. It's like one of these - the company's called Driptech, and it's got one of these drip lines that has a little nozzle that goes to each plant. And so instead of, you know, wasting water, flooding it throughout the field and half of it not even getting near the root zone, you know, you're applying just the right amount of water directly to the roots - incredibly efficient, you know, and enormously water saving. And you're starting to see all kinds of water-saving techniques starting to come about that, you know, as the price of water gets higher or as it gets more limited, you know, farmers are very adaptable, and there are good signs that we'll be able to at least ameliorate some of these water demands that are projected to increase.
DAVIES: As you look at this problem, how much of the challenge we face is a shortage of food as opposed to getting the income into the hands of the people who need it and just managing the public policy mechanisms to make sure that people are fed?
BOURNE: Sure. Well, this is the great conundrum of the food crisis. Part of the problem is poverty, right? We've got half the world that lives on $2 a day and spends 60 to 70 percent of its income on food. The other part of the problem is growing income, so the world's getting richer. Our middle class in places like China and India are growing astronomically, and when they get more money, they typically eat higher things on the food web. - in India, it's dairy; in China, it's pork. So, you know, this great demand for meat, which is expected to double literally within the next decade, is a part of the issue because meat - takes a lot more grain to produce a pound of meat than it does just eating the grain itself. So as people's incomes rise, we need to figure a way for countries that need better nutrition and can get that from meat to allow them to have that, whereas countries like the United States and Europe, well, we eat way too much meat. I mean, our meat-centric diet is scheduled to - and our high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt - is scheduled to make half of the U.S. population either diabetic or pre-diabetic by 2020. So there are parts of the world that eat way too much of meat protein and parts of the world that don't eat enough. So balancing those out and I think it's already starting. You're already starting to see that because people realize in the United States the health consequences of poor eating habits, and they're trying to adjust. So there is this push because, you know, you don't want to keep the world poor just so they can eat lower on the food chain. You want everybody to move up the ladder, but as we do, we're also going to have to adjust consumption, so these are the two swords. You either increase production, or you reduce demand. You reduce consumption by eating lower on the food chain and of course the big question of course is how much we can reduce our population or limit population growth between now and the time when the food really starts to get scarce.
DAVIES: You ever going to be a farmer?
BOURNE: You know, that's interesting, maybe after journalism takes a dive, you know, I'll consider going back.
BOURNE: Right now, I think I'd be better writing about good farmers than trying to farm myself, but it is a noble profession and one that is critically important, and I think one that we ignore at our own peril.
DAVIES: Joel Bourne, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BOURNE: Dave, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Joel Bourne's book is "The End Of Plenty: The Race To Feed A Crowded World." Coming up, Ed Ward talks about some recordings of underappreciated soul singer Jackie Moore. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.