The Ghost of Malthus Haunts the Twenty-First Century

Malthus and Borlaug saw it coming

The much maligned Thomas Robert Malthus, in his Essay on the Principle of Population, said, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.”

Malthus argued that because of humanity’s propensity to multiply, any improvement in the well-being of the poor through increased food production was only temporary, because population growth would bring food production back to the previous per capita level. Malthus based his conclusions on his own observations and his study of historical population cycles, but his assertion that human population growth impedes progress and prevents the elimination of poverty offended many and still does today.

The much honoured Norman Borlaug, “father” of the green revolution, unintentionally proved Malthus right on a global scale. Borlaug was an American agronomist whose research on wheat led to semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant varieties. His work also contributed to the development of high-yield forms of rice and other crops. Borlaug’s achievements averted the starvation in India that probably would have happened as Paul Ehrlich predicted in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. Borlaug is credited with saving over one billion people from starvation, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Borlaug’s green revolution: Humanity’s wasted opportunity

Like Malthus, Borlaug recognized the “power of population.” In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, he said, “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.”

He also recognized the inadequate attention that population growth received: “Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction.”

Borlaug was a compassionate man, and in his Nobel lecture he expressed the hope that his work would provide a “breathing space” for humanity, but emphasized that “the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.”

Sadly Borlaug’s hope proved wrong and Malthus’ pessimism proved right. Between 1970 and 2022, India’s population increased from 555 million to 1.4 billion, and the global population increased from 3.7 billion to 7.9 billion. Despite the roaring success of the green revolution (at least in the short term, and from an entirely anthropocentric perspective), there are still over 800 million people who go hungry, almost as many as were alive when Malthus published the first edition of his Essay.

Just how fast can a population increase? 

Among Malthus’ many references was Benjamin Franklin’s 1751 essay, Observation Concerning the Increase of Mankind. Franklin described the population in the North American colonies as doubling every 20 years. In chapter 2 of his Essay, Malthus said that when resources were abundant, a population could double in 25 years. But that abundance would not be sustained as a population grew, leading to “positive checks” on population growth.

While Malthus’ lifetime (1766-1834) more or less coincided with the timeline of the industrial revolution (~1760-1840), it was the age of oil, which did not really take off until the mid-1800s following the invention of modern drilling processes, that massively increased the amount of energy available to humanity. As such, Malthus could scarcely have imagined the spectacular increase in food production of the green revolution, whose abundant yields were heavily dependent on oil either directly or indirectly in terms of operating machinery, irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and more.

However, Malthus would likely not have been surprised that, instead of using the green revolution as a “breathing space” to “reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely,” as Borlaug had hoped, humanity used it to more than double the human population to its current ~8 billion.

The doubling of a population every 20 to 25 years is one thing when the population is small and the available space is large, but another when the population is already large, all available space is occupied or under cultivation, and there are no empty countries or continents to go to. Eventually those “positive checks” that Malthus described will kick in.

Which brings us to the current global food crisis

In April, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization announced that in the previous month its global food price index had reached its highest level since the measurements began in 1990, and had only slightly retreated since then. This international food supply shock, as well as severe local drought, domestic conflict, and environmental degradation, were blamed for the hunger crises in the Horn of Africa.

But how did this food shock happen? Following the green revolution, increases in food production kept ahead of population growth for several decades, both through intensified (unsustainable) agriculture and the expansion of (finite) cultivated land, but hunger was never eliminated, and population growth eventually started to outpace increases in food production. In November 2020, the head of the UN’s World Food Program warned of “famines of biblical proportions in 2021” unless it received a lot more money. When there is virtually no buffer between food production and population growth, some unanticipated event can tip the balance. Such as a war in Ukraine, perhaps? Russia and Ukraine are among the top exporters of staple crops such as wheat and maize. India is also sharply cutting back on its food exports in the face of rising domestic food prices.

But nobody talks about population growth as a major factor in current famines

Articles that describe the current famine in the Horn of Africa, such as the one cited above, or any of the other endlessly recurring famines, generally mention population growth only an indicator of how urgent it is to produce more food, not as something that must urgently be brought under control. And so it is that the article above is silent on the explosive population growth that has occurred in the three Horn of Africa countries it mentions: EthiopiaSomalia, and Kenya. Using 1970 as the year when the green revolution was in its early stages, the table below, based on Worldometers data, shows their growth during the last 50 years.

Population in Horn of Africa countries over 25-year periods from 1970-2020

Country 1970 1995 2020 Increase 1970- 1995;1995-2020 Increase
Ethiopia 28,415,077 57,047,908 114,963,588 2.01-fold; 2.02-fold 4.05-fold
Somalia 3,444,568 7,491,637 15,893,222 2.17-fold; 2.12-fold 4.61-fold
Kenya 11,301,394 27,768,296 53,771,296 2.46-fold; 1.94-fold 4.76-fold


Enabled by the green revolution’s increased food supply, the three countries have been doubling at almost exactly the 25-year interval that Malthus postulated for times of abundance. And they are still growing at Malthusian rates. The current annual population growth rates (2020) of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya are 2.57%, 2.92%, and 2.28%, respectively, which means their populations should double in about 27, 24, and 31 years. Their environments are already under stress and there is a great deal of conflict in the region.

Expect to hear a lot more about famines and the urgent need to increase food production on a planet on which deforestation, degradation of agricultural land, and soil erosion are already rampant. Don’t expect to hear much about the urgent need to stop and reverse population growth.

Canada’s immigration policy vs its farmland

If one wanted to destroy farmland in a world with famine at the door in many regions, one could not come up with a better policy than Canada’s immigration policy. Although Canada is a grain exporter, only about 0.5% of Canada’s surface area consists of prime (“class 1”) agricultural land with no significant limitations to farming. Just over half of that class 1 land is in southern Ontario, also the location of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, and the rapidly growing metropolitan “Greater Toronto Area” or GTA. Due to urbanization and other activities such as aggregate mining, Ontario has already lost some 800,000 acres of farmland and is still losing 150 acres each day, according to the Ontario Farmland Trust.

Given that Canada has had a total fertility rate at or below the replacement level of 2.1 since 1970 (it is currently under 1.5), our population would have stabilized at about 28 million with balanced migration, where immigration equals emigration. Instead it is 38 million and rising. And the Trudeau government has ramped up already high immigration levels of over 250,000 annually to approach the half-million mark. Targets for 2022, 2023, and 2024 are 431,645, 447,055, and 451,000, respectively. Much of Canada’s growth will occur in southern Ontario, causing further encroachment of farmland, greenspace and wildlife habitat, and in and around the city of Vancouver in the southern mainland of BC. This area already had three times the sustainable population in 1997, according to the Fraser Basin Ecosystem Study led by Michael Healey of UBC.

Canada’s immigration policy is disastrous from an ecological perspective and brings no economic benefits for the majority of working Canadians. The only beneficiaries are business interests, bankers and developers, as well as politicians who seek the votes of new arrivals.

The pursuit of growth is pathological

There can never be enough growth for some. The Century Initiative, which seems to set the government’s immigration policy, advocates for a Canadian population of 100 million by 2100 through a massive increase in immigration. But equating progress with growth and an ever-increasing GDP in an overpopulated world is pathological. The question is not whether growth will stop. It is how many more famines and how much more environmental destruction there must be before our leaders and their economic advisors figure that out by acquiring, as Malthus would advise, “a slight acquaintance with numbers.” Will the reduction of the human population be somewhat controlled, by saving lives through fewer births, or will some “unexpected” event trigger a catastrophic collapse?

Madeline Weld, Ph.D.

President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668

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