Will Malthus Always be Wrong or Is a Food Crisis Inevitable?
In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that population would far exceed food production, which would inevitably lead to mass starvation. According to Malthusian theory, food production and population increase at different ratios. In Essay on Population, he stated that population “increased in a geometrical ratio, and subsistence for man (food production) in an arithmetical ratio…population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years or increases in a geometrical ratio.”1
Malthus thought it may be possible to double food production in 25 years, but did not believe it was possible to quadruple it over 50 years. “In the next twenty-five years, it is impossible to suppose that the produce could be quadrupled.” Of course, Malthus turned out to be wrong. The Earth’s population has increased from one billion in his time to approximately 7 billion today. Yet standards of living have actually risen.
Malthus thought “It would be contrary to all our knowledge of the qualities of land…In a few centuries it would make every acre of land in the Island like a garden.” He believed the world would inevitably run out of farmable land. Malthus was unable to foresee that improvements in technology would allow much larger yields on much smaller areas of land.
The Population Bomb
Paul Ehrlich made similar arguments in his 1968 bestselling book, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich thought “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He suggested bringing the population growth rate to zero to prevent the coming food crisis. Ehrlich suggested taxing large families more, eliminating the child tax deduction and adding luxury taxes to many childcare products, such as diapers and cribs.
In 1975, Ehrlich, with William and Paul Paddock, wrote Famine 1975! America's Decision: Who Will Survive? in which they claimed that widespread famine was just around the corner. Like Malthus, Ehrlich was wrong. Since Ehrlich wrote his books, standards of living have increased while the world’s population has almost doubled. Again, science and technology came to the rescue.
Clearly the predictions of Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich have been wrong up to this point. The question is how long will they continue to be wrong? Can science and technology continually come to the rescue as human populations continue to increase? The world’s population has doubled since the 1970’s and much of this growth occurred in the developing world. The 2050 world population prediction is 9.2 billion. Currently about one billion people around the world are undernourished.
Increasing populations require more living space, which will inevitably reduce the availability of land. Larger numbers of people will consume more water and energy, leaving less available for the production and transport of food. Global warming and bad environmental policy is leading to an increase in desertification and flooding.
China, the most populated country on Earth, has seen a dramatic increase in desertification (arable land turning to desert) due to overgrazing, over-planting, slash and burn agriculture and deforestation. Sandstorms are dumping sand on once fertile land. China is almost 30 percent desert. The desert is growing about 900 square miles a year. China is currently able to produce enough food to feed its population. In the future, China will probably become a major food importer, which will likely drive up food prices around the world.
There are already worrying signs of a food crisis. Food prices have increased substantially in the last few years. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
Food prices have increased since 2001, and particularly steeply since 2006...During the past two decades, demand for food has been increasing steadily with the growth in the world’s population, improvements in incomes and the diversification of diets...Rapid urbanization has led to the conversion of much farmland to non-agricultural uses.2
Reducing Population Size
Governments in developing countries will need to take population reduction more seriously. It will be in the interests of richer countries to help. Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet it has successfully implemented a family planning program that has halved the country’s birth rate. Bangladesh uses village field workers to teach women about contraception. While birth rates have fallen in Bangladesh, the country is still well above population replacement rates (approximately 2.1 children per woman). While much more needs to be done, Bangladesh’s success is an example of what other countries can and must do.
Increasing urbanization may drastically reduce populations. People who are wealthier and live in urban areas tend to have smaller families. Populations will fall dramatically in Europe and are increasing in the United States only due to higher immigrant birth rates. As more people in the developing world move to cities, birth rates will likely decline.3 Large numbers of children are beneficial in agrarian societies but not in cites. In 1950, 30 percent of the world’s inhabitants lived in urban areas. That percentage has increased to approximately 50 percent today and is projected to reach 70% by 2050.4
While there is good news that urbanization can decrease birth rates, the bad news is that higher living standards lead to increased meat consumption. Higher meat consumption will put pressure on food production because farm animals consume huge amounts of grain and water. A cow requires 16 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of meat. Farmers will have to grow far more grain on the same amount of land to be able to feed ever larger numbers of livestock. They will have to share water with larger urban populations. An increased demand for meat represents a major threat to future food supplies.
According to a recent article in The Economist, food production will have to increase by 70% to meet projected population increases. Production increases in staples like wheat and rice are already growing more slowly than increases in population.
Big increases will be harder to achieve than in the past because there is little unfarmed land to bring into production, no more water and, in some places, little to be gained by heaping on more fertiliser...The world cannot feed today’s 7 billion people properly. How on earth can it feed the expected 9 billion in 2050?5
In his book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, author Michael Specter said this about food production
“we have just about reached our limit...we have run out of arable land...Livestock already consume 80 percent of the world’s soybeans and more than half the corn…It takes thirteen hundred gallons of water to produce one hamburger; a steak requires double that amount.”
Do you believe that the dire predictions of Malthus and Ehrlich will come to pass within the next 100 years?
Genetically Modified Crops
Genetically Modified (GM) crops are one answer to the food production problem. According to Michael Specter, GM foods can feed larger populations because pests and disease can lower food productivity by one third. Disease resistant genetically modified crops can lead to higher yields with less pesticide use and reduced soil erosion.
GM crops are very controversial for many reasons, both environmental and health-related. One concern is that GM crops release toxins into the soil, which may harm other plants. Another concern is leakage or genetic pollution, where pollen from GM crops is carried by the wind or insects to non-engineered crops or to wild plants.
A big health-related concern is allergic reactions. Genes taken from allergenic foods like nuts could be dangerous to people with food allergies. There is also concern that GM foods could lead to antibiotic resistance in humans. As populations continue to grow, we may have no choice but to turn to controversial methods of food production.
Considering the various challenges to future food production, such as decreased water supply to farmers, increasing desertification, reaching the limit in the availability of arable land and increased meat consumption, there is growing concern that we may be getting closer to experiencing the dire predictions of Malthus and Ehrlich. It is easy to take comfort in the fact that doomsayers have proved to be wrong in the past. However, as every mutual fund prospectus will tell you, past performance is not an indication of future performance.
It is always possible that science and technology will continue to save the day. More investments have to be made to ensure this. But to prevent Malthus' terrible predictions from becoming a reality, more has to be done to reduce population growth now. Almost half of all pregnancies are unplanned. Many women around the world desperately want to reduce the size of their families. Doing much more to help them could go a long way in preventing a future food catastrophe.
1. Arithmetic sequences go from one number to the next by adding or subtracting the same number. For example, 2, 4, 6, 8 is an arithmetical sequence using addition by 2. Geometrical sequences go from one number to the next by multiplying or dividing the same number. For example, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 is a geometric sequence using multiplication by 2. Geometric sequences increase or decrease far more rapidly than arithmetical sequences.
2. High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis (PDF Document)
3. Science writer Fred Pearce believes there will be a dramatic future decline in birth rates, so concerns about food production and population are unjustified. He makes his case in The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet's Surprising Future.