woman scientists in a cancer research laboratory

Food requirements if affluence slows

Scientists are human too or so it is said. But unlike most of the customers in the local pub, they tend not to criticise outside of their discipline. Here we look at why that is a problem.

Scientists have many peculiar traits. Most are socially awkward, have poor dress sense, and have the weird ability to enjoy reading scientific literature.

In that literature is another odd trait for a group of people trained to be objective. When scientists write about their work, they invariably begin with grand statements of the obvious. 

Here are a few taken at random from my recent sortie into the scientific literature on future food security and unattributed for risk of defamation for scientists have egos too

  • food production and food value chain systems are likely to undergo significant adjustment processes as poverty becomes increasingly urbanised
  • Food science and technology has a significant role to play in achieving food and nutrition security
  • The current model of an ever-increasing population relying on finite resources is clearly unsustainable 
  • Climate change will put demands on our current and future (food) supply to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly affluent population.

The last one gives away the trait.

Scientists are prone to taking literally what comes from another discipline

There are several reasons for this, from mutual respect for peers to looking like a fool for not knowing another discipline is wrong. 

In the middle is a common belief that because my discipline is so deep and complex—it takes me all my smarts and energy to keep up—how can I possibly know about another discipline that is equally deep and complex? Best leave that area of knowledge to the experts.

There is truth and logic in this. 

It also explains why most modern scientists are narrow and deep to find success and why generalists, system thinkers and scenario scanners are rare. 

Although I would argue that it is the technical detail that is deep and complex, not necessarily the conceptual foundations, and so more scientists should peek across the disciplinary fences once in a while.

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

But back to the quote 

Climate change will put demands on our current and future supply to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly affluent population.

An understandable prediction and a typical scene setter to justify the research effort into crop production and yield, crop nutritional value, water use efficiency, fertiliser application rates or whatever other deep and complex solution the researchers have in their silo. 

The translation of the grand statement for the layman is “the weather is going to shit, but we still need to feed people, and with better food”.

The numbers to determine the impact of climate on food supply are plentiful and increasingly robust. There will be a net negative impact of climate change on food production and the food supply chain. Climate change will put demands on farmers today and especially tomorrow. However, the more research unpacks the complex interactions and local consequences, the more difficult predictions become.

Evidence for a growing human population is clear, as are the predictions from demographics that use the dynamics of age structure in populations to estimate future numbers. People are living longer and still want to have babies, who in turn want babies. Such basic biology supported by the massive energy subsidy from fossil fuels can lead in only one direction—more people.

Given the current global demographics, especially the large proportion of young people in Africa and parts of Asia, the only way that the global population doesn’t reach 9+ billion is if more people than expected die.

So far, the climate scientist just has to lean over the fence to his neighbours, the human demographer and the agriculturalist, to gather the assumptions until he gets to the last clause. This one comes from outside science, economics in this case, an increasingly affluent population. So for this, the scientist just accepts the statement as true.

Sidenote here. 

Economists use mathematics and predictive models, but this does not make them scientists. Most of them would not be able to describe the scientific method to you if you dangled them over the edge of a cliff. They simply do not know how it works. If they did, they would be embarrassed and shamed by the assumptions in their models.

Ignoring all the logic of finite resources and space to absorb the waste from energy use, economists make growth in wealth fundamental to modern economic theory that assumes indefinite economic growth. Indeed, the whole house of cards is built upon it. 

History supports this assumption. Arguably net affluence has slowly increased since humans invented agriculture and then exponentially since the discovery of fossil fuel energy and what it could do to technology. Not all people are affluent at any time in history, but there has been an overall gain in wealth.

And we know that as personal income increases, diet changes with proportional gains in protein consumption and fruit and vegetables. People know what they should eat and will if they can afford to. The staggering growth in pork consumption across China is an iconic example.

Together these factors increase demand for both total food supply and the mix of commodities. Growing more wheat, corn, and rice would not be enough.

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

But what if…

One or more of these assumptions is false.

The economic, social and political challenges of maintaining economic growth with finite resources, the increasing severity of the energy and resource use externalities (greenhouse gas emissions are only one of the many), wealth redistribution, supply chain disruption, social unrest, and heaven forbid, war is a lot to ask, even of the economists.

It is just as likely that poverty will increase.

During the food supply chain disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people with acute food shortages grew by over 100 million in a few months. Not all of these people live in the global south.

At the time of writing in August 2022, we can only speculate on the food supply consequences of the war in Ukraine, Russian restrictions on gas supplies (key for fertiliser production as well as energy), and the worst drought in Europe for 500 years. It is unlikely to mean increased affluence, at least not for a while.

Demand might come back towards cheap, accessible calories before it returns to spicy pork dim sims and avocado dip.

The irony is that the demand for food will be lower with fewer people.

Photo by Big Dodzy on Unsplash

What sustainable FED suggests

We don’t blame the scientists for trying to make their research sound relevant. It is their job to publish research findings and to make evidence as accessible to society as they can. Context statements are an essential first step.

We do think that scientists need to be more careful.

It is unwise to assume that colleagues in another discipline know what they are doing. Our experience is that they often don’t. 

This does not give the ecologist the right to heave-ho into economics or agronomy and rewrite the book. Still, there is nothing wrong with applying common sense and the sound logic of the scientific method, even outside of your expertise.

Because if the assumptions from outside are false, it can change the interpretation of the work done inside your tent. 

Science source

Leisner, C. P. (2020). Climate change impacts on food security-focus on perennial cropping systems and nutritional value. Plant Science, 293, 110412

Hero image from photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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