In This Review

Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century
Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century
By Vaclav Smil
MIT Press, 2000, 362 pp

The world's population recently surpassed six billion, up three billion in the last half-century alone and probably on its way to ten billion before stabilizing. An adequate diet is a necessary-if not sufficient-condition for civilized society. For decades, Cassandras have been forecasting a looming world shortage of food, and Smil asks whether the earth in fact can adequately feed ten billion people or more. After a detailed investigation of soil loss, water shortage, environmental degradation, pestilence, harvest and post-harvest losses, diets, and nutritional requirements, he resoundingly says it can. He finds great "slack" in raising food and bringing it to the dinner plate, which leaves great scope for enormous improvements in efficiency at each link in the chain, from food production to adequate nutrition. That said, improvements in efficiency will not come automatically; they rely on effective dissemination of scientific knowledge and adequate incentives to adopt such knowledge at each link. But the possibilities exist. This book should be read, however, less for its conclusion than for its rich and highly informed discussion of all aspects of food production and consumption.