A baby, released into a sea of oxygen and out of the amniotic sac that’s been home for nearly nine months, has taken her first breath of air and will be symbolically known as the 7 billionth person on Earth.
It’s a sign of the reproductive success of our species and a testament to our resourcefulness, ingenuity, and social skills. It’s also a little scary to think that quite so many people are drawing upon the finite resources of our planet. After all, 70 percent of the surface area of Earth is covered by water. Of the land area, much of it is rock, ice, or desert.
The habitable portion is a small world, after all. Very much so from a physical geography perspective. But also socially, politically, and economically. In the era of global trade and communications, this world is getting smaller all the time. And more crowded, as this population milestone reminds us.
With so many mouths to feed, it raises essential questions about the adequacy and wise use of our resources, especially if current rates of growth remain. Let’s remember, it took us from the beginning of time all the way to 1804 to hit the 1 billion mark. It wasn’t until 1927, a great year in Babe Ruth’s career, that we hit 2 billion. We’ve added 5 billion more people in less than a century, in progressively shorter time periods.
If we are going to feed billions, we’ve got to think about how we grow food as well as what we eat. Clearly, feeding row crops to animals, whom we then eat, is not nearly as efficient as eating these plants directly. But meat-eating is here to stay throughout much of the world. The question is, can we control it? Americans eat more meat per capita–about 220 pounds–than the people of almost any other nation. That’s more than twice as much as the Chinese and 25 times what the Indians eat. We have to ask ourselves whether it is possible to feed a growing world population on such a meat-heavy diet, and whether it is sustainable from an environmental and resource perspective.
We Westerners have got to reduce our consumption of meat. And we’ve got to hope that people in the developing world and the newly industrialized world do not start emulating our diet. The spread of intensive egg, meat, and milk production in the developing world is occurring at an alarming rate, and it's a phenomenon we're working to address through our international work.
Agriculture is fundamental to the health of our nation and to the entire planet. But it must be done right. Agriculture must be humane and sustainable, and that means we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got 7 billion reasons to think about this important question.