Flashbulbs exploded along with population numbers this week as cameras captured the birthday of the planet's 7-billionth person.
But when it comes to population, it's not just size that matters. The real number to watch is the percentage of people living in cities: more than 50 per cent worldwide over much of the past decade.
That means population growth is increasingly a local and municipal, more than a global, challenge. City planning without regard to a local food supply may have worked a century ago, when the world's population was 3 billion mostly rural people and when cities of a million were considered huge. But it doesn't wash today.
Case in point: The Federation of Canadian Municipalities invites applications for $550 million in green funds for energy, transportation, waste or water projects. But, hello out there, food doesn't rank.
The separation of city folk from their food sources is more worrisome than a potential world food scarcity crisis. Indeed, some of that scarcity panic is foisted on us by interest groups entrenched in an industrialized global food system that's ever more reliant on genetic engineering, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
For some time now, scientific and mass media reports have been peppered with doom-and-gloom stats - many from the respected but thoroughly pro-industrial UN Food and Agriculture Organization - on the need to double world food production in order to feed 9 billion screaming empty mouths by 2050.
But there are many expert doubters. A recent report of the UK-based Soil Association, Telling Porkies: The Big Fat Lie About Doubling Food Production, argues that such claims are flawed because they assume that poor nations will continue to import staples, when it's local production that's vital. As well, estimates neglect the waste levels in today's system, which sends a third of a ton of perfectly good food per person annually to garbage. As much as half the food produced or caught in the world is wasted, according to University of Manitoba geographer and food expert Vaclav Smil.
The real threat to food security lies elsewhere than farms and fisheries. It lies in distance. It lies in sprawl and the destruction of agricultural land around cities - like the area adjacent to Ontario's greenbelt and beyond. To compound the problem, disappearing farmland opens the door for the manipulation of food by financial instruments similar to those that brought us the housing bubble and subsequent stock market crash.
According to Peter Wahl of German think tank World Economy, Ecology and Development, when the financial crisis hit, institutional investors left their traditional markets to invest heavily in commodities like agricultural products, accelerating already rising prices. That speculative move, he says, created a price bubble that pushed 120 million additional people into poverty. And the answer, as he suggests, is a citizen movement to win regulation.
To protect food access from this new species of predators, cities need to move quickly. Toronto's greenbelt, though one of the largest in the world, was not designed for food security or food sovereignty, which partly accounts for its erratic boundaries and the fact that they protect less than half the vulnerable farmland that could be feeding the GTA.
For those who eat for a living, preserving farmland - which, by the way, means an immediate end to quarries on productive acreage, the Shelburne mega-quarry being the most egregious example - and enhancing local and sustainable food should be the first order of city and provincial business.