Can humanity persist for another 100 years?

Can humanity persist for another 100 years?

Why not? 

A century is not that long a time in the grand scheme of things. All we need to do is stay sane, not throw rocks, and grow enough food without using up all the freshwater. 

Should be easy enough, we have been around a while after all.

Homo sapiens, modern humans, have survived as a species for a long time. The most quoted scientifically based origin is 300,000 years ago in Africa amongst a number of other Hominid species. 

Here is what the Smithsonian says

The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa. Like other early humans that were living at this time, they gathered and hunted food, and evolved behaviours that helped them respond to the challenges of survival in unstable environments.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

The average ‘lifespan’ of a mammal species – origination to extinction – is estimated from the fossil record, genetic evidence and rates of extinction to be about 1 million years, although some species persist for as long as 10 million years. If H. sapiens are an average mammal species then we have 700,000+ years left in us. 

Given our current ‘age’ and these lifespan estimates, the likelihood seems pretty high that we can persist for another 100 years, a minuscule proportion of these timeframes.

However, putting aside the rock-throwing and sanity of the leadership, in order to persist there must be enough food.

Our present complement of 7.7 billion souls each consumes a global average of  2,884 calories per day, give or take, to maintain weight and health assuming that along with the calories comes a balance of nutrients and food types. This is a gigantic amount of food consumed each and every day.

Roughly 22 trillion kcals

Obviously, we have engineered efficient food production systems to meet this demand otherwise there would not be 7.7 billion people and rising in the first place.   

Whilst famine and malnutrition are still prevalent, from a production perspective they are unnecessary. Most of the analysis and modelling suggest enough calories are grown. However, food is unevenly distributed, a great deal of production is wasted, and in many western cultures, people consume far more food than is healthy for the average citizen.  

Then along comes a quote from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that went around the media. Here is how it was headlined in the sustainability section of the Scientific American, an erudite and respected science journal 

Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues

Generating three centimetres of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said

Scientific American December 5, 2014

The warning was harsh. No doubt designed to shock with numbers that should send shivers up the spines of the young. The quote goes on…

Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation.

60 harvests left

In other words, to maintain food production per person equivalent to that in 1960 production per hectare would need to quadruple by 2050.

60 harvests left around many parts of the world, a lifetime of harvests, is a great headline. I’m ok then but if there are no harvests after that lifetime, then what are your grandchildren going to eat? Shocking and personal, a copywriters dream.

The degradation is true. Both intensive and shifting agriculture struggle to be gentle on soils.  It is easy for farmers to either mine nutrients or slip into input-output production systems. However, food production from soil is not static or uniform. There is innovation everywhere and not all soil is being degraded or eroded at the same rate. 

Some systems in regenerative agriculture are able to reverse the degradation trends with soil carbon accumulation and more efficient on-farm nutrient cycling.

Soil degradation is a huge problem but to say we have on 60 harvest left is fodder for the doomscroller, a headline fantasy and has been called as such

The soil scientists don’t believe it, mostly because such a number is very hard to calculate with any certainty. There are too many factors at play.

It also fails the pub test. A few sips of Theakston’s Old Peculiar and it is clear that not all farms will fail in little Jaden’s lifetime. Many farms are thousands of years old what makes the next 60 years so special?

Alright, we are down from the hyperbole. So will we persist beyond the next 100 years?

Well yes, but we will have to look after soil much better than we do at present. And this was probably the FAO message, they just got a bit carried away.

Fortunately, we already know how to do this. Combinations of the following can slow or reverse soil degradation: 

  • maintaining groundcover
  • minimum tillage
  • production diversity
  • careful use of livestock
  • irrigation practices
  • crop rotations
  • rest 

These are a few of the many options. 

It is important that degradation does not reach points of no return where rehabilitation or restoration becomes too difficult given the local conditions. The FAO would call this desertification but it can also be salination or other forms of soil degradation. 

The FAO were guilty of hyperbole but that’s all. 

What is true is this.

Outside the people and the politics, soils hold the answer to whether humanity can persist for another 100 years. 

Only this is not a headline in any way and who wants to agree with it anyway.

Humans are all powerful after all.


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