- Hardcover: 416 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Printing edition (June 15, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780393079531
- ISBN-13: 978-0393079531
- ASIN: 0393079538
- Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 35 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #973,991 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World First Printing Edition
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“[A] fascinating narrative…Bourne brings a piercing eye to intransigent problems in food production and alleviation of hunger, leavened by notes of pragmatism and optimism.”
- Jean L. Steiner, Science
“Humanity's most important activity is getting food, and billions of people already are lacking sufficient calories or micronutrients to lead satisfactory lives. The prospect of having to feed billions more by midcentury is daunting, and yet the scale of the crisis is barely recognized by most people. The End of Plenty should provide an important antidote for that― both covering the overall situation and giving interesting vignettes of problems and potential solutions. It's an important read for everyone.”
- Paul R. Ehrlich, co-author of The Dominant Animal
“Fifty years ago, as many as one out of every three people lived in hunger. Today, the figure is about one in eight―history’s biggest, fastest increase in human well-being. Now, though, scientists and economists increasingly fear that this great accomplishment is at risk. Simply put, the world’s agricultural systems may not be able to provide enough food for the nine or ten billion people who will be alive in 2050. Joel Bourne, who grew up working on his family's farm, traveled the world to explore what may be the greatest challenge facing the next generation. The result is calm, lucid―and fascinating.”
- Charles C. Mann, author of 1491 and 1493
“Thoroughly researched and exceptionally thoughtful…Joel Bourne's courageous book should convince every reader of the compelling need to address world food problems through more skillful and sustainable agronomy, but also through education, especially of women, and universal family planning.”
- Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, New York University, and author of Food Politics
“Much of this book is sad and scary―it's going to be hard to feed a world that we're relentlessly heating. But reading about the amazing advances being made by developing-world farmers with 'organic' agriculture left me with a vision of the planet we could still create.”
- Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy
“Joel K. Bourne Jr. has written one of the most informative, engaging books on the world food prospect I have ever read.”
- Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates
“The End of Plenty is an urgent and at times terrifying dispatch from a distinguished reporter who has given heart and soul to his subject. Here is a wake-up call, and also a call to action. The stakes could not be higher: To stave off apocalypse, we must grow a whole lot smarter in a hurry―starting by heeding the cutting-edge wisdom contained in Joel Bourne's richly researched and passionately argued report from the Malthusian margins.”
- Hampton Sides, editor-at-large for Outside magazine and author of In the Kingdom of Ice
“In a well-documented and fast-moving manner, Joel Bourne Jr., one of America's foremost experts by virtue of his 'hands-on' experience, education, and world travel, clearly depicts a strategic challenge for America’s national security in the coming years. Today, when a humanitarian crisis occurs or an event takes place that overwhelms the elected government, often the first sign of hope is the arrival of a United States Air Force plane or Navy ship bringing relief supplies. 'As the better Angels of mercy,' as President Abraham Lincoln once said, Americans feel compelled to help. Most often, because they move fast and are highly visible, our armed forces bear the brunt. If history is prologue, this developing crisis may well overwhelm our armed forces, and indeed, America. Joel has shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the time for action is NOW―and the consequences for failing to heed his advice may be devastating!”
- Henry H. Shelton, General, US Army (retired), 14th Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff
About the Author
Joel K. Bourne Jr. has a BS in agronomy from North Carolina State University and an MS in journalism from Columbia University. A contributing writer for National Geographic, he has written for Audubon, Science, and Outside, among others. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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Lots of information that I have been previously exposed to as I am a voracious reader of science literature. Two important take aways for me were his explanation of Malthusian Theory and about unintended consequences. Bourne stresses, that its not the total amount of food relative to total population, but that the poor will feel the brunt of any overpopulation food shortages. No big surprise there, but its an issue that seems impervious to any viable solutions. Secondly, the production of food is complex and generally local. Miracle seeds, production methods, water availability, and a host of other factors can make for rapid and great improvements, but there usually is a quick plateau. And there always are some unintended consequences. Reading this book in an area where I have access to five supermarkets within a six mile radius puts an exclamation on his points.
In 2008, he was assigned to cover the global food crisis, and this project hurled him into full awareness of the big picture. The Green Revolution caused food production to skyrocket, and world population doubled in just 40 years. Then, the revolution fizzled out, whilst population continued to soar. Demographers have told us to expect another two or three billion for dinner in 2050. Obviously, this had the makings of an excellent book, so Bourne sat down and wrote The End of Plenty.
The subtitle of his book is “The Race to Feed a Crowded World,” not “The Race to Tackle Overpopulation.” A growing population thrills the greed community, and a diminishing herd does not. Overpopulation is a problem that can be solved, and will be, either by enlightened self-restraint, by compulsory restraint, or, most likely, by the vigorous housekeeping of Big Mama Nature. Feeding the current population is thrashing the planet, and feeding even more will worsen everything, but this is our primary objective. We are, after all, civilized people, and enlightened self-restraint is for primitive savages who live sustainably in roadless paradises.
As incomes rise, the newly affluent are enjoying a more luxurious diet. To satisfy this growing demand, food production must double by 2050. “We’ll have to learn to produce as much food in the next four decades as we have since the beginning of civilization.” Meanwhile, agriculture experts are not bursting with brilliant ideas. “Producing food for more than 9 billion people without destroying the soil, water, oceans, and climate will be by far the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.” Bourne’s book describes a number of gigantic obstacles to doubling food production — or even maintaining current production.
Automobiles are more addictive than crystal meth. Europeans guzzle biodiesel made from palm oil. Americans are binging on corn ethanol. The 2005 Energy Tax Act mandated the addition of biofuels to gasoline. From 2001 to 2012, the ethanol gold rush drove corn prices from $1.60 to $8.28. Not coincidentally, in 2008 food riots erupted in twenty countries. The Arab Spring revolts began in 2011, a year of record harvests and record prices. Today, almost 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is being fed to motor vehicles — enough corn to feed everyone in Africa. Experts predict that we’ll need four times more land for biofuels by 2030.
Crops require cropland, and almost all places ideal for farming are already in use, buried under roads and cities, or have been reduced to wasteland. Every year, a million hectares (2.4 million acres) of cropland are taken out of production because of erosion, desertification, or development. So, 90 percent of the desired doubling in food production will have to come from current cropland. At the same time, the farm soils still in production have all seen better days. Agriculture is an unsustainable activity that normally depletes soil quality over time.
Another obstacle is yield, the amount of food that can be produced on a hectare of land. Between 1961 and 1986, cereal yields rose 89 percent, due to the Green Revolution. But per capita grain production peaked in 1986. Since then, population has been growing faster than yields. Crop breeding experts are wringing their hands. A number of indicators suggest that we are heading for “agricultural Armageddon,” but the experts remain silent, praying for miracles. The biotech industry is focused on making huge profits selling seeds and poisons, not boosting yields.
Agriculture guzzles 70 percent of the water used by humans. Irrigated fields have yields that are two to three times higher than rain fed fields. Demand for water is projected to increase 70 to 90 percent by 2050, but water consumption today is already unsustainable. “Over the next few decades, groundwater depletion could cripple agriculture around the world.”
Crop production is already being affected by climate change. Research indicates that further warming will take a substantial toll on crop yields. If temperatures rise 4°C, maybe half the world’s cropland will become unsuitable for agriculture. Rising sea levels will submerge large regions currently used for rice production.
Meanwhile, population continues to grow, and some hallucinate it will grow until 2100. In a nutshell, our challenge is “to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures, and more frequent droughts, floods, and heat waves.” This must be done “without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends.”
Ladies and gentlemen, this is an outstanding book, and easy to read. Most people have blind faith that innovation will keep the supermarkets filled forever. Those who actually think a bit are focusing on stuff like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars. Food is something we actually need, and it gets far less attention than it deserves. By the end of the book, it’s impossible to conclude that everything is under control, and that our wise leaders will safely guide us through the storm. Surprisingly, a few additional super-threats were not discussed in the book.
Bourne mentions that insects and weeds are developing resistance to expensive GMO wonder products, but stops there. Big Mama Nature is the mother of resistance. She never tires of producing new forms of life that are resistant to every toxin produced by science: insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, antibiotics. Every brilliant weapon we invent will only work temporarily. In terms of breeding new varieties of plants that are resistant to the latest biological threat, there are only so many tricks available. The low-hanging fruit has already been used. Just three plants enable the production of 80 to 90 percent of the calories we consume: corn, rice, and wheat.
The global food system is heavily dependent on petroleum fuels, which are finite and nonrenewable. There is no combination of biofuels or alternative energy that will come anywhere close to replacing oil. In the coming decades, we will be forced to return to a muscle-powered food system. We are entirely unprepared for this, and the consequences will be very exciting for people who eat food.
There is a similar issue with fertilizer. Of the three primary plant nutrients, reserves of mineral phosphorus will be depleted first, and this will blindside conventional agriculture — no phosphorus, no life. A hundred years ago, Chinese farmers used zero commercial fertilizer. Every morning, long caravans of handcarts hauled large jugs of sewage from the cities to the fields.
In the end, readers are presented with two paths to the future. One path looks like a whirlwind of big trouble, and this is not just a comic book doomer fantasy — it’s already blowing and rumbling. The other path is happy and wonderful. Humans will discover their legendary big brains, turn them on, shift industrial civilization into reverse, speed down the fast lane to genuine sustainability, and live happily ever after. Place your bets.