Academic journal article The Geographical Review

FEEDING THE WORLD: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

FEEDING THE WORLD: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

By VACLAV SMIL. xxviii and 360 pp.; maps, ills., bibliog., index. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 0262194325.

"How can we best feed some ten billion people who will likely inhabit the Earth by the middle of the twenty-first century?" is the mighty question that Vaclav Smil addresses in this book (p. ix). This is not, as he points out, the same as asking how many people the earth can feed, an issue he considers "futile and counterproductive" (p. ix). So Smil sticks to something he regards as more meaningful and practical: "Can human ingenuity produce enough food to support healthy and vigorous life... without irreparably damaging the integrity of the biosphere?" (p. x). Steering between cornucopian and catastrophist standpoints, he considers the complete food cycle, from planting to harvesting, wasting, processing, eating, and discarding. In the process he shows how we can make more effective use of resources by increasing farming efficiency; reducing waste, and transforming our diets.

Without a doubt this is both a major issue and a geographical one, situated as it is between humans and resources. It is a pressing issue because of population growth, the demand generated by rising disposable incomes, the dietary shift toward meat that this often implies, and the undesirable environmental changes brought about by agricultural extension and intensification. It is also an important issue because of the potential role of genetically modified organisms, a topic that has split the British royal family but that, curiously, Smil does not address.

The structure of the book is clear and logical. After setting the scene, Smil explores the potentially adverse effects of agriculture on environmental change. Then he examines whether higher cropping efficiencies can be obtained by increasing the effectiveness of fertilizer and water use. …

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