Thomas Malthus and the Global Food Crisis

Jacob Schor

February 15, 2009

Sometime in my distant past, my mother took over my sixth grade science project and forced me to pick a topic that was way over my head.  Still what I learned back then colors the way I see the world to this day.  While my classmates happily mixed baking soda and vinegar to create volcanoes, my mother brought me down to her laboratory and taught me to use a cell counter.  It was a simple apparatus.   It measured the opacity to light of a test tube filled with growth media and bacteria, I think E.coli. From this reading, I (with some coaching) could calculate how many bacteria were living in the tube.  Early one Saturday morning we inoculated a beaker of growth media with a few bacteria and left it to incubate.  Every hour I’d draw off a sample and calculate the population.

This was terribly tedious.  The amount of math involved in working the calculations in those pre-calculator days was nearly too much for a 12 year old.  I realize now that my mother did not possess a good sense for age appropriate activities.  In the end I drew a graph that represented a near perfect Malthusian curve.

Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was an English clergyman, college professor  and economist.  He is still famous for his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population in which he argued that human population would increase at a geometric rate while the food supply could increase only at an arithmetic rate.  He predicted that the food supply would soon prove inadequate for the growing population.

In the tiny universe I had created for my science project in my Erlenmeyer flask, resources were finite,  no new food was created.  Over the course of the day, population counts grew geometrically, just as Malthus predicted, and then when the food ran out, my cell counts crashed almost instantly to nothing.  My bacteria starved.  My microscopic civilization ended.

I was at an impressionable age.  That simple lesson of what happens when finite resources are over consumed has never left me.  Though this might have been hard for a 12 year old to understand, it still proved simpler than the report on the Russian Revolution, that came after our science projects were completed.

Malthus’s predicted catastrophic famine never happened.  As population continued to grow something occurred that he hadn’t foreseen, the application of science and most importantly energy derived from fossil fuels to agriculture.  Better seeds, chemical fertilizer and more efficient transportation of crops allowed food production, at least in industrialized countries, to keep pace, more or less, with population growth. 

After the World War II, the fear of famine inspired the rich countries of the world to fund research and development projects that brought what became known as the Green Revolution to third world countries.  Between 1960 and 1980 the world’s food production doubled. During the 1980s, famine had ended in much of the world, with the exception of Africa, and the rich countries had huge stores of surplus grain.

This surplus grain allowed us to get complacent.  The focus of aid programs for undeveloped countries shifted from agriculture toward creating industries with which they could earn money and buy the surplus grain grown on the farms of rich countries.  Investments in agricultural research and development that had grown by 2% each year in the 1980s has shrunk by 0.6% per year since then.  The research focus shifted away from increasing crop yield to increasing profits.

These subtle shifts in focus allowed the rate of increase in food production to slow down.  Don’t get me wrong, even today the amount of grain produced per acre continues to increase, but just not as fast as demand increases.  For the past 8 years global demand has increased faster than supply.  Grain yields are increasing at 1.1% per year but the world’s population is growing faster at 1.2% per year. 

Growing prosperity in countries like India and China is increasing demand for

animal-based foods, further increasing the demand for grain.  It takes 2-6 pounds of grain to feed a cow, pig or chicken and produce a pound of meat, milk or eggs.  Include this shift in diet to the calculation and increasing demand for grain is actually 1.6% per year.

Biofuel production has shifted some grain production to fuel production.  If biofuel production continues to increase at its current rate, global demand for grain will increase at 2.5% per year for the next ten years.

With continued population growth, arable land is being lost to agricultural use.  No one expects suburban malls to be converted back to farmland.  Urbanization goes only one way. Even if yield increases, less land is available to grow crops on each year. 

Malthus’ catastrophe may still be in our future.  We have delayed it a good 200 years.  If we hope to continue to put off what still seems inevitable, crop yields need to once again be stimulated through research and development.  Over the short term the fastest way to increase yield isn’t necessarily new technology but simply to apply existing knowledge to parts of Africa and Asia where agricultural development is way behind.  Apparently current technology and knowledge could triple the yields in these areas.  In Africa especially, increased yields are self -defeating. There is inadequate infrastructure to transport surplus grain to market.  As a result, the grain stays close to home lowering the price it brings and making the farmer’s investment in technology that created a better yield a financial blunder.

But really do we have a choice?  The global population is expected to increase in the foreseeable future even though the number of people in the developed countries is expected to fall after 2030. The rate of increasing food yield has slowed.  If we don’t increase food yields substantially over the coming years, well, the situation is obvious.  Therefore it seems essential that investment in research continue.  The alternative is that production falls behind population.

Since 2000, the average price of food around the world has nearly doubled.  In some places it has tripled.  Here in the US where most of us spend only a fraction of our daily income on food, these prices increases are annoying.  One third of the people in the world survive on the equivalent of $2 or less a day.  For them, the increasing price of food is more than an inconvenience.

This is the point in the discussion where I’m supposed to urge continual financial investment in the sort of scientific research that will increase crop yields and prevent the convergence of those two lines on the graph where population demand outreaches food production.  Something is wrong with simply promoting this proposal though.  There will eventually be an upper limit to how much food can be produced in the world.  There will be a limit to how many people the world can sustain. 

This brings up another memory.  I was 18 years old, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in Environmental Science.  A famous old guy, whose name I’ve long forgotten, came to present a guest lecture.  He was one of the leaders of the “Green Revolution,” and had spent his career bringing the ‘new agriculture’ to ‘backward areas’ of the globe.  We assumed he would tell us how successful all these efforts had been.  Instead he came to confess.  He told us that time and again he had watched aid programs train farmers to use ‘new and improved’ seeds.  Farm yields increased dramatically creating years of prosperity.  With prosperity birth rates increased and local populations spiked.  Eventually the new strains of crop proved to be less hearty and succumbed to an unpredicted challenge such as unexpected insect or disease destruction, and the crop yields suddenly dropped.  I recall his words almost 40 years later.  “In the end there were simply a greater number of children that starved and our net accomplishment was often only to increase the number of souls who suffered.”

There is no question that we need to continue and actually increase research and development of new crop variants to create greater yields in less hospitable conditions.  If we don’t do this, significantly greater portions of the human population will starve.  Yet at the same time we must know that this process is unsustainable. Constant and unrestrained growth is not healthy.  In our bodies we would refer to such a process as cancerous.  We may not name it as such on a global scale but it is pretty much the same process.  With cancer we are faced with two general choices, prevention or a choice of harsh, sometimes effective, treatments.  If possible prevention is preferable over treatment.  We must bring a similar concept to addressing the global food challenge. 


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