Sunday, January 08, 2006

ten gigapeople

The Economist magazine has an interesting story on the history of wheat, and its historical importance to our entire species.

IN 10,000 years, the earth's population has doubled ten times, from less than 10m to more than six billion now and ten billion soon. Most of the calories that made that increase possible have come from three plants: maize, rice and wheat. The oldest, most widespread and until recently biggest of the three crops is wheat[...]. To a first approximation wheat is the staple food of mankind, and its history is that of humanity.

Yet today, wheat is losing its crown. The tonnage (though not the acreage) of maize harvested in the world began consistently to exceed that of wheat for the first time in 1998; rice followed suit in 1999. Genetic modification, which has transformed maize, rice and soyabeans, has largely passed wheat by—to such an extent that it is in danger of becoming an “orphan crop”. The Atkins diet and a fashion for gluten allergies have made wheat seem less wholesome. And with population growth rates falling sharply while yields continue to rise, even the acreage devoted to wheat may now begin to decline for the first time since the stone age.

Although we — that is, our species — will have some extra calories to manufacture, somehow, before the projected peak population of 10 billion people is reached, it should work out for us. Due to globally declining fertility, we are no longer in a straightforward Malthusian scenario, much less the one that could directly lead to the terrible acting in Soylent Green. At the end of the story, the articles switches off on a side-track of discussing Genetically Modified food as unjustly persecuted by foolish luddites, a persistent theme at The Economist whenever GM is the topic. I do hope it is not being paid for that opinion.

I tried to find a good population simulator, but all the ones I found were pretty uninspiring. Instead, here's a nifty Java applet that simulates zombie infections of a city population. Click on the black applet, and press "g" to make the zombies green and more visible. Or read the instructions.


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