The Greatest Ever Threat Facing Humanity
Why Is The Planet Hungry?
Overwhelming Poverty
Thomas Malthus' Principle of Population
Farmland Expansion
Energy Crisis and Biofuel
Climate Change
Why Is The Planet Hungry?
Overwhelming Poverty
Thomas Malthus' Principle of Population
Farmland Expansion
Energy Crisis and Biofuel
Climate Change
The greatest ever threat facing humanity is almost at hand now. We are on the precipice of a devastating food crisis that has already subjected 870 million1 of the planet's seven billion humans to chronic hunger; that's one in eight members of our species that goes to sleep hungry every night.

At least twenty-five thousand out of the 870 million will die today, tomorrow and every day2 for the foreseeable future - one death in every 3.46 seconds. 16,000 of these deaths are of children under the age of five.

However, for these children, escaping death might not be such a blessing after all.

Statistics show that malnourished and underfed children have low immunity against infections and illnesses, experiencing up to 160 days of illness annually3. The effects of two of the biggest causes of death, pneumonia and diarrheal diseases, are magnified manifold among malnourished and underfed children, subjected to a catastrophic decline in their bodies' autoimmune system.

Contrary to popular belief, the end effect of chronic hunger is not limited to death. Instead, it has far-reaching implications to both survivors and the community at large. For children, degraded physical, mental and psychological developments are very real concerns that could haunt us for generations to come.

Among the most immediate and widespread manifestation of chronic hunger is stunting, underweight and wasting. Experts believe that 178 million children aged five and under have stunted growth as a result of the lack of food4 5.

As bleak as these numbers are, they still do not depict the actual severity of the crisis. If we factor in those suffering from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, the figures could easily double.

A World Health Organization study 6 reports that Vitamin A deficiency alone affects approximately 190 million preschool-age children and 19.1 million pregnant women globally. Not only does this deficiency correlate with spikes in maternal and new-born deaths, it is also linked to a growing prevalence of night blindness, blindness and susceptibility to measles.
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This is a two-part answer: the current inefficient, wasteful and capitalistic distribution system, and the changing landscape of food production in the future.

Historically, food production is not the issue here - at least prior to 2008. The planet's agricultural production, despite its booming population and annual improvement in diet quality, produces in excess of 2,700 calories of food per day per person 7, which is 9%, 47% and 225% above the average required by men (2,475 calories), women (1,833 calories) and children (4-8 year, 1,200 calories) respectively 8 9 10.
In the United States, 40% of the food produced ends up in landfills 11, despite the fact that 14.5% Americans face food insecurity (including 5.4% with low food security) and 47.1 million are receiving government food stamps 12 13.

Wastage is not limited to rich countries alone. In India, the second largest food producer in the world and home to a third of the world's hungry (230 million), up to 40% of its food production are wasted every year due to inadequate storage facilities, inefficient distribution system (roads and railways) and corruption 14 15.

The global food crisis is the consequence of a greater underlying issue - overwhelming poverty.

Most people do not produce their own food, and instead, spend money to acquire this most fundamental biological necessity of their existence. However, unlike the air which we breath, the food we eat requires the investment of time and energy, and consequently, it has evolved into a tradable commodity. Some variety of food had even evolved into a form of luxury, status symbols and an expression of art (think caviar, truffles, Matsutake Mushrooms, etc.). And therein lies the crux of the problem; a significant amount of people in the world possesses neither the ability nor the resource to procure food. In a way, this is hardly surprising, considering the fact that almost 1.3 billion people on the planet live on less than $1.25 a day.

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While it is true that socialistic policies in several first-world countries do assist in feeding the impoverished segment of its respective population, these are far and few in between to make a real difference on a global scale. Even in capitalistic, market driven United States, the government funds an assortment of programs designed to provide for the needy - a role augmented by private charities and social organizations.

However, these efforts, while noble and continue to save lives, are limited in their effectiveness, and are concentrated within the first-world nations' diaspora. Although the result of some of these programs does trickle down to the 'hunger capitals' of the world, more often than not, these people are largely left to fend for themselves - in spite of regular, star-studded campaigns (most notable the Bob Geldof-inspired 1985 Live Aid, and this year's The Hunger Project).

Unfortunately, within the next decade, two at the most, all of this will be moot. The world has slowly, but inexorably, tilted towards a food crisis of the most epic of proportions. Unless there are massive, massive turnarounds in the following seven key factors, the greatest ever threat facing humanity will hit us squarely in the gut.

In his 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population, famed English social scientists Rev. Thomas Malthus postulated that "Population, when unchecked, increased in a geometrical ratio, and subsistence for man in an arithmetical ratio."

Over two hundred years later, and a cursory glance at food production and population growth rates suggest that Rev. Malthus' hypothesis hits the nail squarely on the head. While human population continues to grow in geometric exponential progression, food production technology reached its peak long ago, shortly after the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, and consequently, growth has steadily tapered down.

While scientists have been able to regularly introduce incremental crop yield gains over the last one century, most notably through gene refinements, cross breedings and soil reengineering, it has failed to keep pace with population growth. Global food reserves have dwindled to its lowest levels in more than fifty years. The sustained growth in demand for animal protein has also increased the need for animal feed, introducing yet another competing 'client' base for food producers.

Unless there is a miraculous leap in food production technology rivaling that of the Industrial Revolution, or a sharp tapering in the planet's population growth rate, then there simply will not be enough food to feed the estimated 11 billion humans in 2050.

It is logical to assume that the simplest technique to increase food production is through increasing the size of farmlands.

However, only 10% of the planet's 150 million square kilometers of land area is suitable for agriculture.

Humans have exploited almost the entire 15 million square kilometers of these arable lands. The majority of the remaining unfarmed lands is either too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry, and support little or no vegetation16.
One of the primary factors determining food prices is the transportation cost, which, in turn, are heavily dependent on fuel prices. An increase in fuel prices would indirectly lead to higher planting, harvesting, manufacturing and distribution costs.

As the world's fuel reserves continue to dwindle, and are subjected to dangerous sociopolitical and geopolitical dynamics, their price is expected to maintain its upward spiral for the foreseeable future.

Soaring energy prices has also forced humanity to develop other sources of fuel, and among the most talked about currently is biofuel, which is obtained from biomass conversion.
Industrial biomass ingredients comprise of naturally grown plants, chiefly, sugarcane, oil seeds and maize - all critical components of global food production. The demand of biomass ingredients from the growing biofuel industry will continue to divert agricultural crops from the food supply chain. More critically, similar to animal feed, the competing demands will increase crops prices, which will further impact the poor, especially in developing countries.

The Food Policy Report commissioned by the International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that competition from the biofuel industry alone may account for a 26-72% and 18-44% increase in international maize and oilseeds prices17.

Subsidies, government funding and trade protections for the biofuel industry is also seen by many as an added layer of tax on food prices.

Two centuries ago, food security had no correlation with the global weather. However, the arrival of the Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) gave man the power to alter the climate, often destructively.

The burning of fossil fuels to power the energy, transportation and manufacturing industries has seen the planet's average temperature rising steadily over the last two hundred years, largely due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and massive deforestation of the lands. Numerous indicators have conclusively shown (deniers and skeptics notwithstanding) that the effects of climate change have been accelerating since the middle of the 20th century, coinciding with the advent of mass production - and it is showing no signs of slowing down.
Erratic rainfalls, longer droughts, rising sea levels, weakening thermohaline circulation, submergent coastlines, spikes in hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, ocean acidification, pollution of water resources, carbon cycle imbalances, radiation exposure - all documented effects of climate change that will first affect (or already have) the most vulnerable members of the human species - the impoverished, poverty-stricken.
Small fishing and farming communities in third-world countries who depends on regular cyclical weather and breeding pattern will be catastrophically affected by the smallest distortion in global climate. A single-season harvest disruption could potentially leave millions without access to food and the means to procure them Additional and long-term damage will be felt when generational farm livestocks die from either the lack of feedstock, or slaughtered as food. It would ultimately end in a community or region-wide economic breakdown.
Now multiply this a thousand-fold, and one will begin to understand the frightening prospect here. Already we've seen a preview of things to come in 2008 and 2011 when global food prices skyrocketed to record breaking levels following prolonged period of droughts in 'bread basket' nations and sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti were severely affected, but Somalia was hit the hardest in 2011 as a result of East Africa's worst drought in 60 years.

Four million Somalians went hungry, and 750,000 faced the risk of death. The Bay region was declared a famine zone, and childhood rate of malnutrition soared to 58%.

The United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization views climate change as a 'new threat' capable of affecting all four dimensions of global food security: food availability, food accessibility, food utilization and food systems stability18. It will generate detrimental influences on general human health, food manufacturing capabilities, purchasing power and distribution channels. The most severely affected will be those in the lower rungs of the economic food chain.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, what we have here is the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. And despite the plans, strategies, technological advancements, bluster, promises and guarantees, as of 2012, all signs are pointing towards a planet-like culling, involving the death of billions of humans from starvation by the end of the 21st century. The accumulative death of every single human being since the dawn of time will be nothing compared to the death that we will witness this century. You can count on this.
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Footnotes:
1. The State of Food Insecurity in the World; Food and Agriculture Organization
2. World Food Program; Statement to the United States House Agriculture Subcommittee on Appropriations, Hearing on Foreign Agricultural Service by Josette Sheeran (Executive Director Of World Food Program)
3. UNICEF; State of the World's Children 2008
4. UNICEF; State of the World's Children 2012
5. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; World Disasters Report 2011
6. World Health Organization; Global Database on Vitamin A Deficiency (Global Prevalance of Vitamin A Deficiency in Populations at Risk 1995-2005)
7. Food and Agriculture Organization; Agriculture and Food Security
8. Center For Disease Control and Prevention; National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey
9. Tennessee Department of Health; Recommended Daily Caloric Intake
10. United States Department of Agriculture; How Many Can I Have?
11. National Resources Defense Council; Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill
12. United States Department of Agriculture (Economic Research Service); Household Food Security in the United States in 2010
13. United States Department of Agriculture (Food and Nutrition Service); Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
14. Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sustainable approaches to reducing food waste in India
15. The Times of India; Superpower? 230 million Indians go hungry daily
16. University of Michigan; Global Change Curriculum - Human Appropriation of the World's Food Supply
17. International Food Policy Research Institute; The Food Policy Report - The World Food Situation (New Driving Forces and Required Actions)
18. Food and Agriculture Organization; Climate Change and Food Security: A Framework Document