Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Climate Change and the Future of Food: Soylent Green is People!

The problem of feeding billions of people in a world with an increasingly warmer climate is comparable to a fictional dystopian future

"Soylent Green is people!" shouted Charlton Heston's character at the end of the sci-fi thriller: Soylent Green (1973). The plot is set in the year 2020, a future where environmental disaster and overpopulation has strained the food supply trying to feed 100 billion people living on earth. It is a time where large corporations provide rations to the poor with processed wafer chips called Soylent Green- a food wrongfully marketed as being made from high-energy plankton. Coinciding with environmental disaster, climate change would cripple the production of food in a plethora of ways ranging from extreme floods and droughts, to migration of animals and people, and extreme high and low temperatures, just to name a few. Food production of meat and crops will be adversely affected, but it makes for a dystopian possibility not too distant from the movie's story.

Recently, Lord Stern publicly denounced the consumption of meat regarding the practice as detrimental to the environment and predicts a society without meat. Meat production inefficiently uses land, water, and energy resources. These resources could feed much more people if instead used to produce foodstuff from plant crops only. However, the problem of worldwide hunger is a result of poverty much more so than environmental mismanagement. Yet, the future of climate change would make the situation more distressing.

The hardest nations to be hit with the effects of climate change will be the people in the Tropics (The latitudes 23 degrees north and south of the equator) which unfortunately is where a majority of the poor developing nations reside. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization calls for an annual $83 billion dollars of spending for poor nations to meet the needs of a 9.1 Billion population projected by the year 2050. For China and India alone, spending will need to be $29 billion annually. Although a majority (75%) of this funding will be put forth by private farmers, their efforts to increase production are hindered by poor infrastructure (roads, facilities) and will need public support and funding. The possible food shortage makes solutions like genetically modified (GM) food more economically necessary. GM food is an idea not too far fetched from the fictional plot of Soylent Green.

Growing population plus food shortages plus climate change spell a global problem. Increased funding plus GM food are possible global solutions. As of now, the UN fund for climate change mitigation is abysmally in the low million-dollar range. An estimated $610 billion dollars are needed for the world to adapt to climate change and renewable energy, a number which equates to the 1% of global GDP popularized as a climate change target set by the ominous Stern Review. Genetically modified, however, food is vastly unpopular, but minds may change when they are starved for food. Would world leaders ever think to turn to the solution of Soylent Green? Hopefully not, but just the thought is enough to consider a shift away from meat production all together.

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