Dear EarthTalk: What are the main drivers of food scarcity that lead to so much starvation around the world, and how can they be addressed? -- Marjorie Millerton, Provo, UT
Food scarcity is a bigger problem than ever as human population numbers continue to swell, putting additional stress on already fragile food production and distribution systems. And it’s not just happening in far away places: A recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the number of U.S. homes “lacking food security” rose from 4.7 million to 6.7 million in just the last five years.
According to Oxfam, the world’s poor spend three-quarters
Meanwhile, the United Nations’ World Food Program reports that a billion people around the world—one in seven of us—don’t have enough to eat. And projections of food prices doubling by 2080 turned out to be gross understatements: Some key crops have doubled in price in just the last decade. Food scarcity leading to hunger kills more people today than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
“World population growth is outpacing food production, particularly with the four crops that provide the bulk of the world’s nutrition: wheat, rice, corn and soybeans,” reported Robert Roy Britt in a June 2011 article on the LiveScience website. “As studies have shown previously, there’s little land left to convert to farming, water supplies are drying up, and global warming is wreaking havoc on the growing seasons and contributing to weather extremes that destroy crops.”
There are many drivers of food scarcity around the world, but drought exacerbated by climate change is perhaps the biggest today. “Scientists have been predicting for years that a warmer planet coupled with increasing water demands could cause food shortages,” says Britt. Meanwhile, increasing demand for fresh water is drying out aquifers faster than nature can replenish them, making water scarcer for farmers.
“With food scarcity driven by falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures, control of arable land and water resources is moving to center stage in the global struggle for food security,” reports Lester Brown of the U.S.-based Earth Policy Institute. “In this era of tightening world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage. Food is the new oil.” Another big contributor is waste: A 2011 United Nations study found that 1.3 billion tons of food, about one-third of global food production, is lost during production or wasted after being partially consumed.
According to Oxfam, the world’s poor spend three-quarters of their income on food. A survey by Save the Children found that 24 percent of families in India, 27 percent in Nigeria and 14 percent in Peru now have foodless days. “By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet and demand for food will have increased by 70 percent," says Robert Bailey, Oxfam’s senior climate advisor.
Food scarcity is a tough nut to crack. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be substantially cut back, as does meat consumption, which exploits land better used directly to grow crops for human consumption. Family planning can play a key role in curbing population growth. And policies such as in the U.S., where in 2011 30 percent of the grain harvest was used to distill ethanol to fuel cars, only make matters worse.
Dear EarthTalk: I’d like to have a garden that encourages bees and butterflies. What’s the best approach? --Robert Miller, Bakersfield, CA
Attracting bees and butterflies to a garden is a noble pursuit, given that we all
Attracting bees and butterflies to a garden is a noble pursuit indeed, given that we all depend on these species and others (beetles, wasps, flies, hummingbirds, etc.) to pollinate the plants that provide us with so much of our food, shelter and other necessities of life. In fact, increased awareness of the essential role pollinators play in ecosystem maintenance—along with news about rapid declines in bee populations—have led to a proliferation of backyard “pollinator gardens” across the U.S. and beyond.
“Pollinators require two essential components in their habitat: somewhere to nest and flowers from which to gather nectar and pollen,” reports the Xerces Society, a Massachusetts-based non-profit that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. “Native plants are undoubtedly the best source of food for pollinators, because plants and their pollinators have coevolved.” But, Xerces adds, many varieties of garden plants can also attract pollinators. Plant lists customized for different regions of the U.S. can be found on the group’s website.
Any garden, whether a window box on a balcony or a multi-acre backyard, can be made friendlier to pollinators. Xerces recommends providing a range of native flowering plants that bloom throughout the growing season to provide food and nesting for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Xerces also says that clustering flowering plants together in patches is preferable to spacing individual plants apart. “Creating foraging habitat not only helps the bees, butterflies and flies that pollinate these plants, but also results in beautiful, appealing landscapes.”
Along these lines, gardeners should plant a variety of colors in a pollinator garden, as color is one of the plant kingdom’s chief clues that pollen or nectar is available. Master gardener Marie Iannotti, an About.com gardening guide, reports that blue, purple, violet, white and yellow flowers are particularly attractive to bees. She adds that different shapes also attract different types of pollinators, and that getting as much floral diversity of any kind going is a sure way to maximize pollination.
Another way to attract pollinators is to provide nest sites for bees—see how on the xerces.org website. The group also suggests cutting out pesticides, as these harsh chemicals reduce the available nectar and pollen sources in gardens while poisoning the very insects that make growing plants possible. Those looking to go whole hog into pollinator gardening might consider investing $30 in Xerces Society’s recently published book, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, which provides a good deal of detailed information about pollinators and the plants they love.
Gardeners who have already encouraged pollinators can join upwards of 1,000 others who have signed onto Xerces’ Pollinator Protection Pledge. And the icing on the cake is a “Pollinator Habitat” sign from Xerces stuck firmly in the ground between two flowering native plants so passersby can learn about the importance of pollinators and making them feel welcome.
CONTACTS: Xerces Society, www.xerces.org, About.com “Bee Plants,” gardening.about.com/od/attractingwildlife/a/Bee_Plants.htm.