The Food Crisis

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Population control activists routinely argue that the world cannot continue to support an ever-increasing population. Resources are finite, and they are starting to run out, or will run out soon.

Perhaps the most important resource is food. The consequences of running out of food are surely more dire than running out of almost any other resource. So let's take a look at the present state and future prospects of the world's food supply.

Thomas Malthus wrote one of the first books advocating population control, in 1798. It bore the catchy title, An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society. He analyzed the situation as follows: Population growth is dependent on the current population -- the more people there are at any given time, the more children will be born, and the population will grow faster and faster every year. This is called "exponential growth". But food production is limited by available land, water for irrigation, and so on. These things are finite. At best food production might increase by the same amount every year. This is called "arithmetic growth". But eventually even that rate of growth will be impossible to maintain, as available land, water, and so on are used up, and increases in food production must start to taper off. Thus, with the number of people growing faster and faster, and food production growing slower and slower, sooner or later it will simply be impossible to feed all the people, and there will be mass starvation.

In Malthus time the population of Britain was about 11 million, which he considered the country was just barely able to feed. He wrote that the idea that the nation could feed double this number, or 22 million, was "probably a greater increase than could with reason be expected". To support double this again, or 44 million, would be "impossible to suppose", and that this impossibility "must be evident to those who have the slightest acquantance with agricultural subjects".1 Britain today has a population of 58 million2, who do not appear to be starving. (Our data processing manager at Ohio Right to Life is an immigrant from England. I suppose he fled to escape the famines.)

What was wrong with Malthus analysis? He was essentially correct about population growth: it does indeed tend to increase exponentially. But he was completely wrong about food production. The following chart shows what Malthus expected to happen to food production, and what has actually happened. I use wheat as the example because it is a basic food eaten by people all over the world, and statistics on world production are readily available.3

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World Wheat Production:
Malthus Predictions vs. Actual

The line labelled "Malthus" shows food production as Malthus predicted it would be at the most optimistic: a straight-line, linear increase. And just to be overly generous, we'll start him off with the correct number for 1950 instead of the absurdly low prediction for 1950 that he made in 1798.

The line labelled "Actual" shows food production as it actually was: increasing at a faster and faster pace.

Editor's Note: It's now been 17 years since this article was originally posted. Has the situation changed? Not really. I just checked back with the Food and Agriculture Organization to get some updated statistics. So here's an updated graph with the lastest numbers available as of 2017.8 As usual with statistics like this, they're several years behind, but we have through 2014. We included a few more data points in the plot so it's more precise, not as smooth, as the original graph. (Note: If you carefully study the two graphs, you may notice a slight discrepancy between the old numbers and the new. But it's about 2%, so it's proably just some techincal differences in how the FAO counts.)

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Updated: World Wheat Production:
Malthus Predictions vs. Actual

Population control advocates today admit that Malthus was overly pessismistic, but they still hold to his basic ideas. They continue to warn that the disaster is almost upon us. Occassionally some will even say that it is already beginning. For example, Paul Ehrlich, one of the leading population control advocates, recently wrote that "40,000 children die daily from hunger-related diseases".4 This comes to 14.6 million per year. It's not clear where he gets this number from, as no one is keeping such statistics on a global basis. Presumably most of these starvation deaths must be occurring in the developing world -- few people in the US or Europe are dying of starvation. But according to UNICEF, about 12.9 million children in the developing world die each year, of all causes combined. Of these, UNICEF claims that 8.1 million could be prevented with proper medical care, primarily vaccines.

But as the population grows there is less and less food to go around, right? Well, let's see. The following chart shows world food production per person since 1950, based on the United Nations computation of the total of all types of food.5

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Food Production Per Person
As a percentage of 1950 Production

source: United Nations State of Food and Agriculture reports

Hmm. According to the United Nations figures, since World War II, world food production per person has increased by 30%. Note we are not saying that food production has increased by 30%, but food production per person. And even this incredible increase is surely less than what could be done. For the overwhelming majority of Americans and Europeans, the problem is not that they have too little to eat, but that they eat too much. So there is no need for food production for these people to increase. If we just look at the developing countries, where some people may really need more food, production has increased 38%.

How is it possible to continue to increase production year after year like this? For most of history, and even today in many parts of the world, the major limit on food production is the number of farmers available to work the land. As the population grows, so does the number of farmers. In addition, what's really enabled the increase of the last few decades has been the so-called "Green Revolution": irrigation, selective breeding of improved crops, and fertilizer. When I was originally researching this topic I happened to come across a list of the leading exporters of various foodstuffs. One showed the top ten wheat exporters. I could have guessed most of them: the US, France, Canada, Australia, etc. But #10 was quite a surprise: Saudi Arabia. That's really a place you think of as lush farmland, isn't it? They now export over $200 million worth of wheat each year.6

Some argue that these advances have now reached their limits, that all that was accomplished was postponing the disaster, and that we are now once again pushing the limits. Well, it would surely be pessimistic to assume that after decades of advances, agricultural technology is now going to stop dead. But even if it did, we could just plant more crops. The UN came out with a study back in 1970, which is a little out-of-date but there is no reason to believe things have changed much since then, on how much land in the world is suitable for agriculture. If you assume that we are not going to cut down any forests or make other major changes to the landscape, there are about 4.4 billion hectares. Of this, 1.4 billion, or less than a third, are actually being used to grow crops.7


1. An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, Thomas Malthus, 1798

2. 1995 Information Please Almanac, Otto Johnson (ed), 1995

3. Data for the graph comes from The State of Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, combining annual reports from 1952 through 1991; as quoted in Handbook on Population, Robert L Sassone, 1994

4. The Population Explosion, Paul Ehrlich, 1990

5. op cit, Sassone

6. op cit, Johnson

7. 1970 Statistical Yearbook, United Nations, 1970.

8. UN Food & Agriculture Organization, www.fao.org

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Posted 10 Sep 2000. Updated 11 Jan 2017.

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