Food may yet become the defining limitation of the human population
“I will not live in the pod, I will not eat the bugs” has been a meme among the very online Right for some time. It refers to a general sense that They (whoever they are) would like to funnel all of humanity into a dystopian future in which we’re stacked in tiny, pod-like homes and fed on ‘sustainable’ protein manufactured from insects.
But is there really a sinister plot afoot to persuade us all to eat bugs? Eva Vlardingerbroek, a campaigner who rose to prominence with the Dutch farmers’ protests against carbon cuts, thinks so: she’s shared footage from a Dutch school of a programme where kids are invited to try eating insects as a ‘sustainable’ protein substitute.
One swallow does not make a summer, as they say. (Though on bug protein, we’ve seen quite a few swallows recently). But while there probably isn’t a literal conspiracy to move us all into pods and onto a diet of insects, the meme (and Vlardingerbroek) point to a real policy problem: how we get out of an oncoming impasse in the developed-world human food chain.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus published a famous essay, in which he predicted that human populations would keep multiplying to the point where the food supply would no longer be able to keep up. Malthus judged that number, in Britain, to be around 28 million (less than half of today’s population).
Demographers estimate the global population at that time was around one billion; that number has increased eightfold since then. While the growth rate is slowing, it hasn’t peaked yet. Malthus got the numbers wrong because he didn’t reckon on the oncoming ‘green revolutions’ — especially those powered by centralisation, mechanisation and command of organic and inorganic chemistry — that would make food cheap and plentiful enough to smash the barriers his estimations were based on.
But was Malthus wrong in an absolute sense? Opinion is still divided. For it’s increasingly apparent that the the ‘green revolutions’ themselves were not a permanent solution, not least because so much increased productivity relies on fossil-fuel-dependent nitrogen fertilisers. This dependence is already contributing to rising food prices, thanks to sanctions on Russia: what will happen when fossil fuels run out altogether at some undefined future moment?
Meanwhile, and relevantly for the Dutch farmers’ protests and our putative bug-eating future alike, intensive and centralised livestock farming is highly polluting, producing runoff that damages rivers even as it relies in turn on carbon-intensive production of cheap grain for feed.
Where do we go from here? None of the options look very appealing. Human populations need to stabilise or fall, or else we need to go on looking for ever cheaper and more sustainable ways of feeding a population growing into the future. And this looks like replacing what’s left of the rural economy with robotisation and multi-storey factory farms, for example. Or trying to persuade people to eat less meat, or to eat ‘alternative’ protein (such as insects).
Alternatively, it looks like trying to persuade people not to reproduce, and coping with the great many negative political, cultural and economic side-effects of long-term population shrinkage. Out on the radical fringes, ‘ecofascists’ propose still more brutal and direct solutions, most of which (rightly) provoke horror. But even shifting back to slower and more inefficient, labour-intensive food production implies a smaller population, and reversing many sociocultural changes (such as urbanisation) which most view uncritically as ‘progress’.
Faced with this wicked problem, it’s perhaps no wonder we find green protesters’ demands are often incoherent. The Van Gogh soup protest last week, for example, demanded an end to fossil fuels, but also affordable food and energy for the poorest. The brutal truth is that unless we embrace the pod and the bugs, we’re probably going to have to pick one.