Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century. Vaclav Smil. xxviii + 360 pp. The MIT Press, 2000. $32.95.
Feeding the World is a refreshing addition to the substantial body of literature on the future of the world's food supply. Vaclav Smil, who is Distinguished Professor of Geography at the University of Manitoba, describes himself as neither a "catastrophist," as he terms Lester Brown and Paul Ehrlich, nor an "ebullient cornucopian," as he calls Julian Simon. He reviews the numerous threats to our food supply, including soil erosion, the depletion of fish stocks and fresh water, the increase in meat consumption associated with the rising affluence of societies, and the potential impact of global warming on agroecosystems. However, the central theses of his book are that "we have quite a few incremental, unglamorous, but ultimately highly effective means to deal with the challenge" and that intensification of crop production, though necessary, "should not rely primarily on new inputs, but rather on more efficient use of existing resources," particularly water and fertilizer.
Most agricultural scientists will be familiar with the technologies that Smil advocates for improving the efficiency of crop and animal production and sustaining the health of agroecosystems, such as drip irrigation, green manures, improved timing and placement of fertilizers and more environmentally appropriate choices of food crops and animals. They will be aware of both the potential of these technologies and the various technical problems and socioeconomic factors that have limited their adoption by farmers. Smil acknowledges the critical role that public policy must play in making efficient technologies and practices more attractive to farmers. However, he refers the reader to other publications for coverage of policy issues and instead focuses his book on the "lasting fundamentals" of biophysical determinants of crop and animal production.
A prominent technology that receives notably little attention in Smil's book is plant biotechnology. Indeed, plant breeding as a whole is barely mentioned. His intention is clearly to highlight the potential of existing technologies that are being underused or ignored in the midst of all of the excitement over crop genetic engineering and genomics.
After reviewing crop and animal production, Smil shifts to topics that, as he notes, are less often addressed by books on world agriculture. These include postharvest food losses in storage and processing and the major effect that human dietary needs and choices have on food supply and demand. In the final chapter, Smil applies his analysis to the specific case of China and answers Lester Brown's question ("Who will feed China?") by concluding that China can feed itself.
I suspect that most scientists will be in agreement with Smil that it is biologically possible for our planet to support a healthy human population of 9 billion, the United Nations "medium" projection for the maximum population that we will reach. Feeding the World provides an important service by documenting the scientific evidence for this conclusion, describing some technical approaches that can be used to attain food security and stressing the importance of increased efficiency. However, social, economic and political factors present a substantial counterweight to the biological and technical basis of Smil's optimism. Readers who wish to gain a broader perspective on the prospects for food security for all will need to expand their reading beyond Smil's book.—Michael B. Cohen, Entomology and Plant Pathology Division, International Rice Research Institute, Makati City, Philippines