The Big Ratchet: How to Feed a Hungry Planet

Dairy farmers, Anthony Paudoie and his father Jean-Louis, harvest wheat in a field with their harvester on July 14, 2014 at a farm of Le Pin, near Nantes, western France. The Loire Atlantique department is the second milk producer in France with 840 million liters of milk per year.
AFP Photo/ Jean-Sebastien Evrard

These days, July Fourth is often celebrated with an excess of food. The famous Coney Island hot dog eating contest comes to mind.

But throughout most of human history, few people could afford the sin of gluttony. Billions upon billions lived hand to mouth, wondering if they could scratch out enough calories to survive the week or even the day.

In her book The Big Ratchet, Ruth DeFries explains how humanity went from hunger to plenty by making more efficient use of Earth’s resources. Even with more people than ever before, “Our current problems are more about abundance than about lack of food. Our species has never had to grapple with such surplus,” she writes.

DeFries builds her book around an ever-correcting system of ratchet, hatchet, and pivot. Human ingenuity allows us to solve problems and “ratchet” up food production. Nature strikes back, dropping a “hatchet” on us. Then we “pivot” to a new approach and ratchet up once again.

For example, during most of human history, food production was limited by a lack of nitrogen and phosphorous. Humans first solved that problem by spreading animal (and human) waste on fields. When that ran short (hatchet dropping), we discovered bird guano. When that also ran short, we developed ways to get fertilizer from natural gas. When phosphorous became a problem (hatchet) we found ancient fields filled with it and began mining.

The key is using tools to make ourselves more powerful and efficient. And in the modern sense, tools mean tractors, factories, and fertilizers from natural gas. This is the massive pivot DeFries finds: the move to using fossil fuels to boost food production.

So far, there’s no hatchet. We’re hitched to fossil fuels, and there’s no going back. Nor should we.

As DeFries points out, by using fossil fuels, humans are simply tapping into energy beamed here from the sun millennia ago. And with billions of mouths to feed right here and now, it would be criminal to leave that energy buried in the ground, instead of harvesting it to benefit humanity.

She cites Norman Borlaug, who devoted his life to increasing food harvests around the globe. Late in his life, he was criticized by environmentalists, and explained what he thought of them:

Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. They have never produced a ton of food. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 60 years, they’d be crying out for fertilizer, herbicides, irrigation canals and tractors and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

We can’t afford to be complacent. “The Green Revolution was yet another experiment in feeding humanity. Like other experiments, there’s no endpoint,” she writes. “Nature finds a way to ensure that no solution is permanent.” The hatchet is still there.

Of course, we’re the only creatures on Earth who can harvest ancient energy. It’s in our genes, but it’s even more than that.

“Brain power is the key ingredient,” DeFries points out. “By inheriting an intelligent brain, rather than just a specific trait such as beak size, offspring stand a better chance of finding food even if the usual source is for some reason lacking.” She notes that human nature is so powerful, it even drives evolution in our favor.

And genetic engineering may be the next step, delivering food that’s resistant to drought, pests, and other threats. “Humanity is still, and always will be, learning to live with the massive transformations our ingenuity has wrought,” DeFries concludes.

Indeed. So let’s make sure we don’t take any potential tools off the table by shutting down the use of fossil fuels or genetic engineering. Our lives on Earth depend on it.


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