How Food & Energy Efficiency Can Support a Growing Population

By David Croushore

The world population is expected to reach 7 billion in the next year, before climbing as high as 10 billion this century.  In the past, population projections like these have often underestimated future population growth. 

When considering the world population, it is common to ask whether or not we have enough natural resources, food, water, and energy, to continue to sustain our growing population.  However, this question ignores a crucial  factor.  The issue has never been how many resources we have, but how efficiently we can harness and  utilize them.

The steep slope of the population line coincides with the spread of agricultural technology throughout the world.  Increased farm yields have continually decreased the cost of food, and advances in sanitation (and modern medicine) have decreased the rate and severity of diseases.

The challenge we face as a world civilization going forward is to continue to pioneer new and efficient means of food and energy production, sanitizing water, and combating diseases of civilization.

Food and energy production must be efficient and safe.  In the developed world, food recalls are rare, but still too frequent.  Poor agricultural policy has contributed to this issue by stressing the use of ineffective and misguided nutritional labeling over food quality regulation.  Efficient energy exists, in the form of nuclear power, but the NIMBY contingent limits our ability to dispose of the (safe) nuclear waste.  Electric cars threaten to stress the energy grid during off-peak hours, creating a negative externality in the absence of nuclear power (which does not have variable output, but rather produces at peak levels constantly, creating a symbiosis between electric cars and nuclear power).

Despite these limitations, the next generation of innovative technologies has begun to appear.  Genetically engineered seeds produce higher crop yields without sacrificing nutrition (though, it should be noted, our dependence on corn poses the most dire systemic health risk in the modern world, far exceeding the inevitable rise of anti-biotic-resistant diseases).  Geo-spatial mapping and micro-meteorological analysis technologies will increasingly allow for efficiency analysis of farming, manufacturing, and even residential improvement.  These and other innovations should provide hope for the future of our world population as they streamline the production and distribution of food and energy.

There can be little doubt that through increased efficiency in the production of food and energy, our world can sustain a larger population.  Vast areas of land remain sparsely populated, so crowding cannot be considered a factor.  As we have witnessed over the last century, innovation always arrives in time to meet the challenge, so we should fully expect the population of the world to continue to increase, and welcome the growth (along with its very positive effect on our bottom lines).

The posts on this page are contributed by students from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in conjunction with the newly launched Center for Social Value Creation. The center's mission is to develop leaders with a deep sense of individual responsibility and the knowledge to use business as a vehicle for social change. These posts are a way to continue the dialogue outside of the classroom and share the viewpoints of Smith students on the challenges and opportunities of triple bottom line thinking.