Over two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus predicted that the growth of human population would soon outstrip the food supply. Although this may ultimately be correct, he was off on the timing.
Since his dire predictions, there have been numerous famines, food shortages and conflicts over resources, but we have not yet had a global food shortage…. if we take the total amount of food available and divide it by the total number to be fed. However, this assumes a perfect system of distribution which is far from what’s available. Food distribution in the most needy areas are generally inadequate and often deteriorating through neglect or conflict.
Malthus and other doomsayers could not have predicted the tremendous increase in grain production using fertilizers, pesticides, etc. and leading to the “green revolution”, or the spectacular technological developments . Technology doubtless has had a profound impact on food production. But it is not a magic wand. It is a mistake to extrapolate from the increases in food production that occurred from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s. Technology was able to increase the fish catch tremendously, to the point of depleting many of the world’s fisheries, but it cannot bring back the fish whose stocks are rapidly disappearing world-wide.
Equally serious is grain production which many experts believe may have reached a point of no return globally. Since 1984, the annual percent increase in grain production has been less than global population increases, and declined by 12% on a per capita basis. Furthermore, high yield crops require large amounts of water, and in key food growing areas the demand for water is reaching the limits of the hydrological cycle to supply irrigation water. Additional fertilizer on currently available crop varieties is having less and less effect on yields even as it continuing heavy use contributes to soil degradation. No new technologies (in irrigation, fertilization, breeding or genetic manipulation) promise to lead to quantum leaps in grain output.
A half-hectare of land a year is required to feed a varied diet to one person. However, worldwide only one-quarter of a hectare per person is available; this will drop to one-eighth hectare by 2035 if current trends continue. Moreover, the impending peaking of the production of conventional petroleum and natural gas, is resulting in much higher prices of these vital resources. This will hurt agricultural productivity and raise the cost of transportation.
Given all these negative trends , it seems prudent to heed the warnings of the scientists… and of Mr. Malthus.