Smil prefers to look coolly at our habits and suggest how we can make moderate changes to our production and consumption and reap great benefits of efficiency--and better health. You won't be surprised to learn that beef takes a beating in the race to convert solar energy to food, but you might not know that pigs and chickens are practically neck and neck. Of course, all of our two- and four-legged friends are eating the dust of the grains and vegetables, proving again that slow and steady wins the race. If Smil's ideas can get the attention they deserve, and if as he says "China could do it," then we ought to be able to look forward to an equitable, sustainable place at the table for everyone, even as our population reaches 11 digits. --Rob Lightner
The debate over feeding a growing world population seems like an ink blot test - you "see" your paradigm (prejudices, world view) and feel strongly, usually without a lot of data.
This seems true of environmentalists as well as free market enthusiasts.
Vaclav Smil recaps the debate, including Paul Ehrlich's famous vasectomy and - so far always wildly inaccurate - prophesies of massive starvation, and the equally enthusiastic faith of free marketers that technology and free markets will _always_ and _forever_ keep right on booming.
Then he adds a reality check, going over the data and the science in loving detail.
Smil has spent many years in the field - and in paddies ;-) - all over the world, so his summary for general readers recaps his own cutting-edge scholarly books as well as scholarship generally. Freeman Dyson was deeply impressed by Smil's general work on bioenergetics, the physics of ecology - Smil is the rare bird who can do first-rate research _and_ explain it without talking-down, grinding an ax or equations (he does have a flow diagram for biospheric nitrogen that is truly elegant, as well as charts and graphs that _work_ without bogging you down).
While he concludes it is just possible to feed the projected world population over the next century, the fascination is in the details he presents elegantly.
For instance - the loving movement for more work horses on farms. I love morgans, but some even love mules ;-)
All agricultural uses consume about 1% of North American liquid fuels, but feeding the horses needed to replace internal combustion would require 250% of current land devoted to agriculture. Smil is too delicate to ask what we'd do with all that horse manure - in the 1850s, New York City had a small industry devoted to sweeping it up and shipping it to Connecticut's "gold coast" to grow onions.
Nitrogen fertilizers are perhaps the critical input, and perhaps one third of us today could not be fed without artificial nitrates (Smil has a book _Transforming the World_ just on this topic).
He is equally powerful, point by point, on just how China went from starving en masse with Mao to current surpluses, what we know and do not know about soil erosion, and each of the limiting factors in crop varieties (cultivars, if you like good words). He does not seem to over-emphasize, but if genetic re-engineering of crops ever gets beyond resistance to pests, the underlying efficiencies of photosynthesis plus organic fixation of nitrogen _conceivably_ might allow some wildly more efficient "Frankenfoods", a sort of "monster mash" using C4 photosynthesis as the basis.
If Smil takes sides in the clash of worldviews, he successfully presents it in terms of in-put efficiencies. E.g., will we really starve because we will run out of farmland, because artificial fertilizers will run short or kill-off the micro-life that make soils live.
I found one sentence bemoaning the "collapse" of petroleum prices, which cut short "drilling for oil" by improving energy efficiency. This is where engineering efficiency loses touch with most of us. Gasoline cheaper than bottled water is good for most of us, bad for OPEC, and state interventions to artificially impose the cost signals from $40/barrel petroleum would be hugely costly even before you count pure waste.
Consider Al Gore's "carbon tax" which immediately gave coal an exemption - because coal is so clean, or maybe to pay-off the UMW and Senator Byrd. Britain passed a carbon tax, but somehow imposed a double helping on state-owned _nuclear_ power plants that generate zero "green house" gases, again because coal production has political clout that completely offsets any environmental arguments.
But Smil's strength is _precisely_ his ability to focus on the data, on the science. Economics and politics, let alone worldviews that mimic theology, show up only as consequences of the biophysics.
Smil's book is a "must read" for anyone interested in the world food problem. His most valuable contribution is his insistence, backed up with an unparalleled marshalling of facts, that the biggest hope in the short run lies in greater efficiency. By looking at the whole food cycle, from field to final end, he can show (correctly) that waste all along the line is costing us more than enough food to feed all the hungry AND many of the unborn. Water and fertilizer are lost in the field, grain goes to rats and weevils during storage, and so on down to the appalling plate waste in the US. Smil does not side with the catastrophists who project imminent famine (they have been wrong too often) nor with the cornucopians who see nothing but plenty ahead (he dismisses them with the tart comment that, ultimately, the earth would have to be all grain if food and population kept growing). He is, however, on the optimistic side, seeing existing and fairly easily-developed technology as quite adequate to feed the expected world population. There are some problems. First, he accepts the hopeful premise that world population will level off around 10 billion. In spite of the mantra-like repetition of this figure by aid agencies, it is probably too optimistic. China is barely managing to sustain its one-child policy, and population growth is still rapid in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, and Latin America; many countries show no sign of slowing. Second, he adopts the most optimistic possible figures or scenarios on soil erosion and some other variables. Desertification, for instance, he ascribes largely to natural climatic swings. This is not credible; there are far too many photographs, from around the world, of desertification that stops short at barbed-wire fences (which prevent overgrazing). On the other hand, he does not say much about minor and obscure crops, and still less about obscure cropping regimes and methods. Use of such technologies (found mostly among traditional peoples around the world) could vastly increase the productivity of world agriculture. One notes, going beyond this book, that some countries today are as badly off as the most pessimistic of catastrophists feared: Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Mali, and many more. These are countries with weak and usually tyrannical governments, often torn by conflict. Conversely, some countries have done as well as the most cheery optimists could have hoped; these are mostly European countries with strong, democratic governments with high levels of accountability. In between, countries fall neatly into line along a continuum. China, Smil's and my main area of expertise, is in the stretch. Smil, arguing against Lester Brown, sees much hope for China. However, China's government is currently toward the weak and tyrannical end, making Lester Brown's gloomy predictions look more reasonable. China has a long history of saving itself at the last minute, and Smil may be right in the end. But China also has a long, long history of famine caused by inept governance. Anyway, the point is made, and I wish Smil had made it: Good government, not technology and not food waste, is the key. This being said, Smil's book is about the best out there at the present, and brings together a huge array of important facts, many of them otherwise almost impossible to find in the specialized literature. Anyone interested in world futures had better read it.