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A look at food supply and population

Throughout the history of the human race, it has been the food supply that has determined our numbers. When humans were hunters and gatherers, that lifestyle limited world population to probably fewer than 50 million. As man learned to plant and harvest crops and domesticate animals, the increased quantity and improved reliability of the food supply allowed world population to increase to 300 million by the beginning of the first century. With little change in agricultural practices, the world’s population 1,500 years later had increased by only 200 million.But then things began to change. The increase in food production as a result of the technique of crop rotation, with increased cattle production and return of the manure to fertilize the land, resulted in a doubling of the population to one billion by 1800. The ensuing Industrial Revolution brought advances in agriculture, such as the steel plow, chemical fertilizers and tilling to drain wetlands, which further increased food production, and world population increased another 500 million to 1.5 billion in 1900.But in the early 1900s, there was concern that world agricultural production would not be able to support any further significant increase in population. Then in 1914, Fritz Haber, a German chemist, developed a process for combining atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen obtained from methane gas to form ammonia, which could be converted to ammonium nitrate, a powerful explosive, which was just what Germany needed in World War I. After the war, production of ammonium nitrate was converted to agricultural use as a powerful fertilizer. Applied throughout the world to fuel the “Green Revolution,” massive application of ammonium nitrate produced a quantum leap in grain production, allowing a four-fold increase in population to the current six billion in just 100 years.But there is a major flaw in this scenario, and that is the immense heat and pressure needed to produce ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, which requires prodigious amounts of electricity, consuming enormous quantities of fossil fuels – coal, petroleum, and natural gas.Up until 1900, agricultural production ran on renewable resources, and therefore could go on indefinitely. But current rates of food production are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource. And therein lies the crux. Growing populations and expanding economies worldwide are demanding more and more energy, just as the continued availability of fossil fuels is becoming more questionable. To what essential use will we allocate dwindling supplies of fossil fuels – to generate the electricity, or to fuel the transportation system, both needed to support modern civilization, or to produce fertilizer to raise enough food to feed the world’s increasing billions of people?Don’t look to atomic power; world uranium production cannot supply current demands of the atomic energy industry. As an aside, world supplies of most metals, such as copper, lead, zinc, molybdenum, chromium, manganese, nickel, tungsten, and titanium are also being strained to meet steadily growing demands, which is reflected in prices that in many cases have reached six to as much as twenty times what they were less than a few years ago.In the long run, fossil fuels will be exhausted, and with it the ability to feed more than one and one-half to two billion people, and the world may have to revert to the sustainable agriculture of 100 years ago. History provides us with many examples of societies, countries and civilizations that have collapsed due to the failure of their agriculture to provide enough food to support their populations, due either to drought, exhaustion of the soil and/or overpopulation. But never before has it been on a worldwide scale.


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