The End of Plenty - A Review by Roger Gilbert, Publisher, Milling and Grain magazine
n 1989 I was researching reasons why our compound feed industry needed a strong global voice. I was secretary general of the International Feed Industry Federation and I had heard whispers that the world’s food demand might treble in the 21st Century to keep pace with population growth, but little additional information was available. I spent time checking through the US Bureau of Statistics website and came across population projections that showed global population would peak at 9.5 billion by 2050 before plateauing to end the century at slightly more than 10 billion. It was obvious to me then that this was a vital piece of information, that a 50 percent increase in our population would occur in little more than 50 years. It may still become a ticking time bomb in terms of global food security for the industry responsible for producing much of the protein consumers want. That moment of clarity, and I have done much in the intervening period to promote what has now become a well-known cliché of ‘ feeding 9.5 billion people by 2050’ was largely on my mind when I received a review copy of ‘The End of Plenty’ from US publishers W.W. Norton and Company.
The race to feed a crowded world
There is a limited number of individuals on the planet today who have managed to visit the countries and regions producing our foodstuffs in the volumes needed to feed the world’s growing population and to those places where the supply of adequate food is insufficient to prevent deprivation and starvation. Agronomist and journalist Joel K Bourne Jr has done both. He has also taken the knowledge and experiences he has acquired and questioned many leading researchers in the field of food production as to how we managed to maintain food 22 | November 2015 - Milling and Grain
supplies for our existing population (with only some 850 million still going hungry – 50 years ago one in three lived in hunger) and what the likely consequences are for our future if we continue applying the farming and political policies, that while staving off food shortfalls over the past forty years, might not best serve us in the run up to 2050 and beyond. Therefore, in my humble opinion, we should listen and learn from Joel Bourne and his contemporaries, consider their research, open our minds to their experiences and listen to their anecdotes before forming our own opinions and responses. Throughout such a well-written and clearly articulated book, it is hard to find fault. Its content is completely captivating and many chapters are worth a second read. Joel K. Bourne, an agronomist, compiled ‘The End of Plenty – The race to feed a crowded world’, over 10 years while working on assignment for National Geographic magazine in the area of natural resource issues. He makes it clear there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solving the conundrum of population versus food supply that faces us but does point out ways we might improve our prospects. While he admits that the book is ‘more a synthesis of the work of others’ than a creation of his own and accordingly goes on to thank those that provided greatest help, the book certainly boasts an impressive array of scientific specialists and others. Without his ‘hands-on’ experiences and easy story-telling, many of the underlying messages would not have connected with the reader. He puts human faces to those producing our food and also those who are faced with food scarcity. I appreciate the manner in which this book has been pieced together in an easy-to-read and understand way that clearly outlines where we are in terms of world food production, how we got here, and what our options might be for the future.
He takes the reader on a journey through time and countries, outlining how we provided food in the past to present day policies that have direct implications on the way we produce and price our food for many who have borderline nutrition. He provides insight into how famines occur – which often are not the result of failed crops alone, but simply exacerbated by the inappropriate responses by governments to perceived food crises. There are lessons for all in the recounting of these disasters. He talks personally and passionately about Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who with a small group of researchers brought about dramatic crop yield increases that staved off starvations in many densely populated countries. He visits Reverend Thomas Malthus’s resting place in Bath, UK to better understand the man who recognised in 1803 that humans, despite their science, culture and reason, are ultimately bound by natural law. In other words, humans “are locked in a never-ending twostep between our numbers and the sustenance we can wrest from six inches of topsoil.” He looks at the Punjab and the plight of farmers who benefited spectacularly from Norman Borlaug’s developments; yet now find their production systems under threat. His book, and subsequent research takes him to China, Latin America and Africa. He analyses the food price crisis of 2007 and comments on the food industry’s attempt to double food production by highlighting the five-point, ‘silver buckshot’ approach of Jon Foley, who heads the Institute of the Environment at