The world is presently well fed, healthy, and strong; but the precursors of world famine are growing stronger and because we are so fortunate the thoughts of preparedness for food shortfall are growing weaker. Perhaps the percentage of humans suffering from famine this winter is the lowest in human history. I don’t know how one could verify that assertion, but adolescent bones recovered from ancient times have growth rings, resembling tree growth rings and they are an indicator of famine. There have been horrific famines in the past few hundred years, but at the moment the only famines are the direct result of military action and may be considered more appropriately as war causalities.

Famine is not in the news and most countries with news media currently have populations which are young enough to have never experienced a famine, or even heard of one. At the moment the world has an abundance of human food even if there is a short supply line with little surplus. Most of us prefer fresh food so a quick delivery of newly grown food is a positive thing. However, there is a downside to this tight fit between growth and consumption of food because if something happens anywhere along the supply chain there isn’t much time to fix it. Of course that’s not going to happen, at least not in most people’s world view.

Currently living people probably put the likelihood of famine right next to the Chicxulub impact disaster which destroyed the dinosaurs. That was an extremely rare event, having occurred 65 millions years ago, and the previous one was 150 million years earlier.

Extinction events chart

Percent of species extinction in millions of years ago

Famine, on the other hand, has always been only a month away, and we only stave it off by eating. If for any reason your food supply fails for only a month, you go from being hungry at dinner time to being almost dead. Imagine having to live exclusively on the food you presently have in your house; how soon would you run out and your month to being dead of famine begin? Once you face that little problem you will realize how your wellbeing really is absolutely dependent upon the smooth functioning of the world’s food supply.

We are presently exploiting the temporary abundance of one-time-use resources to create food, but when they eventually become scarce, and become expensive because we are forced to mine lower grade materials, the problems with simple exploitation of resources will become clear. It can be called affluence-consumption or, less politely, squandering of unearned natural capital. We are able to squander because these one-time-use resources are still easily available. They will soon become scarce because of the huge consumption of our present seven billion people eating them up. With the over-expanded population, and now even accelerating expansion,  we will soon move into a poverty-consumption form of scraping up the last remnants of what can be found.

How soon is this switch from affluence-consumption to poverty-consumption going to occur? To believe we can continue with exploding population and diminishing resources for a hundred years, the life expectancy of some healthy babies, is hallucinating. What will happen if in that single lifetime if the population goes up by the same rate as it did this last century? That was from 2 billion to 7 billion, so at that rate the next century the population would go from 7 billion to 3½ times greater, to 24.5 billion living people. But that is probably impossible to attain and beyond impossible to maintain.

Most of the food we eat has been created by mechanization and fertilizers combined with green revolution genetic technology creating more productive plants. The first two need oil and the plants are already using nearly half their metabolic energy creating the food we eat. Since plants like an apple tree, for example, can’t be all edible fruit and no leaves, limbs or roots we can’t go too much further into energy derived from improvement of the plants. Maybe double the productivity at the absolute limit. Of course we can stop eating meat and starting eating more plant matter and vegetables directly—that will help double the calorie supply. But, at best, that would only stave off the world famine and then the people of the world would have to become gardeners again. But that is so inefficient it can’t happen without a tremendous drop in population, perhaps all the way back to Roman times or even Pyramid times.

The famine problem is not solved but it is in temporary abatement.