Around the world, at least a billion people are hungry or need better diets. To feed a global population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, we will need to increase food production by as much as 70 percent, most analysts believe. Achieving that goal requires civilization to address overpopulation and overconsumption through a bottom-up movement focused on agricultural, environmental and demographic planning, among other strategies, argues Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Paul Ehrlich (Biology). A crucial first step is to give equal rights to women worldwide, Ehrlich says.

“This is maybe the central problem for humanity,” Ehrlich said of food security during a Feb. 15 presentation at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Meeting in Boston. Ehrlich’s talk, “Feeding All While Avoiding a Collapse of Civilization: Science’s Greatest Challenge,” was part of a symposium called “Global Food Security in Relation to Climate, Population, Technology, and Earth Changes.”

Ehrlich touched on themes from a recent Proceedings of the Royal Society commentary, “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?” that Ehrlich and his wife Anne Ehrlich, also a Stanford biologist, wrote. It calls for improving agricultural practices, replacing fossil fuels and giving women equal rights to enlist more brainpower in finding food supply solutions and to slow birth rates. During his talk, Ehrlich also called for supplying all sexually active people with access to modern contraception, more efficient use of water and fertilizer, and a move toward more vegetarianism, among other measures. First and foremost, Ehrlich said, society must approach ecological challenges with more urgency. “You can’t negotiate with nature.”