The World Food Crisis and Political Malthusianism

Government failure, not overpopulation, is the cause of higher food prices

Riots have broken out in more than a dozen countries as prices of food staples have doubled and reserves declined to their lowest levels in a generation. The world food crisis is at the top of the agenda at the Group of Eight summit meeting in Japan this week.

Is Thomas Robert Malthus right after all, that human numbers have finally overwhelmed our ability to produce food, leading inevitably to mass starvation? In 1798, Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, where he famously asserted that "population does invariably increase where there are the means of subsistence." As a consequence, some portion of mankind must forever be starving; and, further, efforts to aid the hungry will only lead to more misery, as those initially spared from famine bear too many children to feed with existing food supplies.

In subsequent editions Malthus softened his dismal conclusions and argued that "preventative checks" could avert overpopulation by reducing birth rates. Preventative checks included later marriage and abstinence, along with indulgence in "unnatural passions" and "irregular connections," by which Malthus meant prostitution, abortion, masturbation, and homosexuality.

Modern disciples of Malthus have stressed the dismal checks on population, e.g., war, pestilence, and famine. The most famous neo-Malthusian was Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), in which he declared that it was inevitable that hundreds of millions would die in the 1970s. Why inevitable? Because, as Ehrlich explained, "To ecologists who study animals, food and population often seem like sides of the same coin. If too many animals are devouring it, the food supply declines; too little food, the supply of animals declines... Homo sapiens is no exception to that rule, and at the moment it seems likely that food will be our limiting resource." Or more simply stated, the goal of all animals is to turn food into offspring.

In 2003, Duke University consultant Russell Hopfenberg restated this claim in an article called "Human Carrying Capacity Is Determined by Food Availability," published in the journal Population and Environment. Hopfenberg wrote, "[T]he problem of human population growth can be feasibly addressed only if it is recognized that increases in the population of the human species, like increases in the population of all other species, is a function of increases in food availability."

Ehrlich was wrong. A global famine did not occur in the 1970s, 1980s, or the 1990s. Instead, food became cheaper and more abundant than ever before, even as the world's population doubled. But what about now?

The price of staples like corn, wheat, and rice are escalating, indicating that demand is outstripping supplies. Why? Because of political and economic institutional failures, not overpopulation. First, let's deal with the claim that human population, like the populations of all other animals, expands as food supplies increase. On a global level that certainly looks plausible. As the amount of food increased over the last century, world population rose from 1.5 billion in 1900 to 6.6 billion today. Case closed?

Not so fast. Consider that countries with the highest food security are also the same countries with below replacement total fertility rates. If the availability of food was the chief determinant of birth rates, then one would expect Iowa farmers would spawn more kids than any group on the planet. Instead, it is countries in which food insecurity is greatest that have the highest total fertility rates. As an empirical fact, as people become wealthier and better fed, they tend to bear fewer children. Well-fed human beings can evidently override the genetic programming that drives other animals to turn more food into more offspring.

How much food is there right now? Enough to feed 10 billion vegetarians. One oft-heard argument is that increased Chinese prosperity is driving up meat consumption, which is diverting grain into livestock production. It takes about eight pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, and 2.5 pounds of grain to produce a pound of chicken. It is true that Chinese meat consumption is soaring, but China has produced nearly all of the extra grain it needs to grow its burgeoning numbers of livestock. In fact, China remains a net exporter of grains. Chinese corn yields an average of 82 bushels per acre compared 150 bushels per acre in the United States. In other words, Chinese yields could nearly double using already existing technologies. In addition, crop biotech leader Monsanto predicts that corn yields will double to 300 bushels per acre by 2030.

So what is driving up global food prices? Joachim von Braun, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), points to high oil prices which have "made agricultural production more expensive by raising the cost of mechanical cultivation, inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, and transportation of inputs and outputs."

In addition, biofuel mandates in the United States and Europe are diverting food into fuel and boosting the price of feedstock crops like corn. So, on the demand side, higher corn prices cause food consumers to shift to rice and wheat. On the supply side, higher corn prices cause farmers to reduce rice and wheat production in favor of corn. These shifts in demand and supply have tended to boost the price of rice and wheat and other crops. IFPRI estimates that increased biofuel demand accounts for 30 percent of the increase in weighted average grain prices.

In response to higher food prices, several major food-producing countries have instituted export bans on various agricultural commodities. Export controls shrink the size of the market and reduce domestic prices to farmers. Of course, reduced prices signal farmers to produce less. For example, China has banned rice and maize exports, and India has banned exports of rice and pulses. Argentina has raised export taxes on soybeans, maize, wheat, and beef, and Ethiopia and Tanzania have banned exports of major cereals. In addition, Benin, China, Malaysia, and Senegal have imposed price controls on some staples. Price controls are especially damaging because they strongly discourage farmers from increasing their production. IFPRI estimates that "the elimination of export bans will stabilize grain price fluctuations, reduce price levels by as much as 30 percent, and enhance the efficiency of agricultural production." Clearly eliminating subsidies for biofuel production in developed countries and export controls in developing countries would go a long way towards easing the world food crisis.

A longer-term problem is that decades of rising food security have led to cutbacks in both public and private agricultural research focused on boosting yields. Since 1980, rich donor countries have cut their support for agricultural research and development for poor countries from $6 billion to $2.8 billion. Other bad policies have contributed substantially to the current food crisis. For example, most governments in sub-Saharan Africa have underinvested in farm-to-market roads and in agricultural research, while also imposing high import taxes on fertilizer and modern high-yielding seed, price controls, and bans on genetically enhanced crops. Making the heroic assumption that if sub-Saharan governments "fulfill their commitments," IFPRI estimates that spending an additional $14 billion per year could boost African agricultural production by 7.5 percent annually through 2015.

Finally, the world food crisis could have the highly beneficial effect of jumpstarting the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations. High food prices could serve as the impetus for eliminating damaging food market distortions such as rich country farm subsidies and poor country protective tariffs.

The current world food crisis is not the long predicted signal of Malthusian overpopulation. Instead, it is the result of political Malthusianism, that is, a series of government policy failures that are preventing farmers from growing the food demanded by the world's hungry billions.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  • ||

    The problem is that the ability to get elected to office, and the ability to understand economics, are often unrelated skill sets, and at worst mutually exclusive.

    Banning food exports to prevent hunger is one of the most braindead, counterproductive examples. Assume we cut off imported food and banned interstate sales of food in the U.S. "for teh children" -- food exporters like California and Iowa and Washington would produce less, while states like Arizona would suffer mass emigration to prevent starvation.

  • Naga Sadow||

    I've long stated that ECO 101 and ECO 102 should be required for all majors. Also should be a requirement for high school graduation. Granted it would take roughly 10 years to have a discernable impact but I believe it would make a difference.

  • stuartl||

    Well-fed human beings can evidently override the genetic programming that drives other animals to turn more food into more offspring.

    I'm not sure if it is really true that humans are the only animal that does not respond to food abundance by having more offspring. This article suggests that one evolutionary strategy is to produce fitter and/or larger offspring in response to food abundance. In the US, where the goal is frequently to get your kid into the best kindergarten, this seems to be a common strategy.

    I have no idea the level of research in the area, but am suspicious (especially when used in a political context) of this kind of generalization about the uniqueness of humans.

  • Douglas Gray||

    In Zimbabwe, the country has gone from being a huge agricultural exporter(When it was called Rhodesia) to a typical starving African nation, all due to government corruption.

    However, Bailey gives an incomplete picture. It is not all due to governments. Australia has also gone from being a huge exporter to a country which must import, but it's due to drought and other weather factors, not government ineptitude.

  • ||

    Naga Sadow

    While I agree with you in principle, I'm not sure it would do any good. Maybe there would be a marginal change in the number who are economically literate, but I doubt it. I've had arguments with people who have agreed to every one of my points only to have them restate their original position because they feel that my position is wrong. [The "But the big oil companies are making so much money!" kind of response.]

    It is similar to the fact that most kids are exposed to biological science and the evidence for evolution - even have to pass exams on the material - but a huge proportion still spout "evolution is just a theory.*"

    *My response to that argument: "So is relativity. Want to stand beside a nuclear bomb to see if it works?"

  • ||

    oh please, the problem is just insane speculation. what we need is a market based cap and trade program for carbon dioxide. That will be the most effective free market way to lower food prices.

  • ||

    One thing missing, perhaps one of the biggest things, is the drastic increase in commodity market trading, as shown here, in Michael Masters's testimony before congress.
    http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/_files/052008Masters.pdf (warning, this is a pdf file. Don't be scared)

    What even he doesn't get at, though, is why people are investing in commodity markets so much. Traditionally, in a Capitalist system, prices drop as production gets more efficient, meaning to invest in commodities was to invest in something you know will lose money. The same thing should be happening; there is no drastic shortage in coffee, for instance, and there should be no reason for anyone to invest in commodities.

    But for the fiat currency. Prices are increasing above and beyond what they should, given inflation, because investors know that there will be inflation. The answer isn't to restrict the commodity markets, but to [i]fix the dollar[/i]. The food price increase is the result of this cascade effect, much more so than the increased demand due to biofuel is. Granted, if this can kill biofuel legislation, hooray for the ancillary benefits, but undo no circumstance, given a stable money supply, should this happen.

  • Antiglobalism||

    Overpopulation means more consumers, means more speculation for food, means higher food prices, but basically, the recent price spikes were caused by the biofuel industry.

    Why biofuel? Easy, the global food companies are lobbying this through to take control over the future energy assets. It's globalism, simple math.

  • Chad||


    I have no idea the level of research in the area, but am suspicious (especially when used in a political context) of this kind of generalization about the uniqueness of humans.


    We actually quite unique in one way - birth control. It is the reason for the population decline that is setting in throughout the industrialized world. Simply put, humans (and other species) evolved two powerful emotions that caused our populations to grow if resources existed: the desire to have sex, and the desire to fiercely protect our children. What we did NOT evolve was a desire to HAVE children, which was unnecessary if sex led directly to children. With birth control, however, sex does NOT usually lead to children unless we choose to let it.

    Birth control has circumvented our normal reproduction pathway. While being a great thing that allows great freedom for us all, birth control appears to be leading us towards inevitable population decline unless something else changes.

    As Ron noted, we already have the food to feed 10 billion...more than will ever exist at once according to the UN. Overpopulation is simply not a global issue, though it can be a local one.

  • ||

    "...we already have the food to feed 10 billion...more than will ever exist at once according to the UN. Overpopulation is simply not a global issue..."

    I didn't realize that the UN employed psychics.

  • Rhywun||

    I've long stated that ECO 101 and ECO 102 should be required for all majors.



    It was at my college (SUNY Buffalo). Well, 101 was required. And I hated every minute of it.

  • ||

    Ryan Langrill,

    You almost had me. Everything you said made so much sense. But then I got to thinking why is the dollar being mismangaged. Then I remembered that it is the Fed's job to control the price of money(interest rates) and this is the main lever they are using to control inflation ....so your saying the Fed is doing a bad job? By implication this means that you are against the Fed?! then I figured it out...you are a anti-semite conspiracy theorist trying to spread your poison ideology. I know the Fed has nothing but humanities best interest at heart and we have to have a Fed managing our currency and this has been proven to be the BEST monetary system....if you think otherwise you are a nutcase.

    You sound like that loon ron paul arguing with all the grownups at the debates with his wacky monetary theories.

    If libertarians want to get anywhere we need to lay off the crazy pills and make the arguments of broader appeal like for gay rights advocacy etc. This is the future of libertarianism.

  • ||

    Well.. in the short-run.. right now... ethanol and high oil prices due to bad policies and no shortages per se are the main reasons for our woes.. and in the long-run we are all dead anyway.

    A worst case scenarios from the the 60s has not materialized and suddenly all environmentalists are doom-seers who just do not get economics 101. Let us forget that MOST predictions about the population doubling every couple of years have come true. Same is true for MOST environmental predictions - that conditions would get worse, species loss, erosion, climate change etc.)

    Technology and more market efficiency will do the trick. E O Wilson does not understand this when he warns about species loss etc? Here a glimpse.

    The market must be free to function - it is too complex and organic to be controlled by the state - we would only pay a dead-weight loss in case of regulations, interferecne, taxes and subsidies - laissez faire..

    but nature.. ah nature we can approached like a machine or factory. we can "fix" it with better tech.. with better GMOs for example!

    we are obviously mixing up a lot of different arguments together for convenience reasons. Yes - GMOs can help feed more people for some time. And? Yes - market policies are better than stupid statist policies. And?

    What about the degeneration of our only ecosystem and the threat to the happiness and prosperity that our technological and economical revolutions have enabled?

    What good is it to get 100% more out per acer when the ecosystem still reaches an ecological point-of-no-return?

    Dear Reason Team - please explain to us why you are so confident that given that we deploy GMO (more unnatural intervention with nature) and free market-policies - nature would be saved.

    Until a year ago the instinctive response to the ecological challenge was: technology will save us! This is what E O Wilson argued decades ago. Nowadays the instinct shouts: transparent pricing and markets will safe us. Ask a jeweler and jewels will safe us!

    Come on guys. It is how we think about nature and not merely what policies we apply. Of course stupid statist policies are not the best way for health care, education and the environment. But that does not make an economist a better environmentalist.

    Explain to us how nature works and why we do not have anything to worry about anything as long as we stay economically libertarian but not ecologically. Ecological libertarians are worse to economical libertarians than the worst statists. Economical and ecological libertarians are to economical-only-types like an oxymoron. As if somebody cannot be good looking and rich at the same time or somethin... pathetic! Almost anti-American I might dare to say ;-)

  • ||

    http://www.accountabilitynowpac.com/

    ok people...we all disagree on lots of stuff...but please tell me Reason will at least put their name on the list supporting the break-the-matrix-Glenn Greenwald....peaceful democrat, anti-war libertarian, liberty caucus republican effort to make sure they do not pass immunity laws for the illegal eavesdropping that some of the phone companies have been co-conspirators in?


    Is Reason going to participate...the cosmos and paleos can work together on some things right? isn't this in all of our best interest? Ayn Randian, I will promise not to do any "cosmotarian overlord" for one week if you just pledge $5 to the cause...issues specific efforts can help us regain our freedom ....this is what the internet can help us do.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Aresen,

    I agree. I'm something of a dreamer, I guess. What I would like to get across to most people is the consequence factor. EVERYTHING has a consequence. When you get right down to economics, everything seems to come down to resource management. More of one thing will inevitably lead to less of something else.

  • stuartl||

    We actually quite unique in one way - birth control. It is the reason for the population decline that is setting in throughout the industrialized world.

    Do you have any sources/data to back this? I have vague recollections that some species change their fertility depending on circumstances, but really can't recall. Not all methods of birth control require technology or deep thought.

  • Chad||

    "Do you have any sources/data to back this? I have vague recollections that some species change their fertility depending on circumstances, but really can't recall. Not all methods of birth control require technology or deep thought."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub-replacement_fertility

    The US is just below break-even now. Just about every other industrialized nation is well below the replacement rate. Most industrializing nations are experiencing rapidly decling birthrates. The only places with birthrates well above replacement levels are impoverished nations with little education and access to birth control. As these nations move towards industrialization and modern society, their birthrates are expected to drop as well.

    Europe has managed to staunch the bleeding and has more or less stopped the decline in its birth rate, but has not gotten it to move up towards replacement. Places like Japand and Korea are far below replacement and only getting worse.

    The UN's official projections (based on peer-reviewed social science and economics, not crystal balls) predicts a maximum population of 9-10 billion sometime in latter part of this century.

    Simply put, well-educated people with access to birth control are choosing to not have enough children to ensure a stable population. Barring some technological or political change, population decline is inevitable. It is also undesirable...fewer people may cause the remaining survivors to be a bit better off, but nowhere near enough to offset the losses of those who were not born in the first place. The reason for this is pretty simple. Broadly speaking, the next person born on this planet will affect our total human happiness in three ways:

    1: He or she will have his or her own happiness, adding to the total

    2: He or she will collaborate and interact with his or her friends, family, coworkers, and customers in many ways, most of them beneficial

    3: He or she will decrease everyone's share of the world's natural resources

    Until the third effect is large enough to offset the first two, adding an additional person creates more happiness for humanity as a whole. It is extremely unlikely that we are anywhere near this point.

  • oleg||

    Ron,

    ok - 7 billions is not the limit.

    But what is your estimate? Do you think there are some limitations or not at all?

    Thanks.

  • stuartl||

    Chad,

    While your article discusses contraception, it also says -- "Another, perhaps simpler explanation, could be a reduction in the frequency of sex in populations with low birth rates."

    There is no doubt that contraception has some effect on population, but is it the only or even the primary cause of slowing population growth? The neo-Malthusian assumption that for all animals more food equals more offspring may be simplistic. For some species (including humans?), the response to abundance might be fitter offspring, not more offspring. I am no expert, but a quick internet search gives a few examples similar to the research I linked to above.

  • ||

    Let us forget that MOST predictions about the population doubling every couple of years have come true.

    Erm, not really. The population has never doubled every couple of years, and the Malthusian doomsday projections of the '70s were fundamentally flawed because they assumed compound, rather than linear, growth rates.

    Same is true for MOST environmental predictions - that conditions would get worse, species loss, erosion, climate change etc.)

    I would say that it is a very, very mixed bag here. The most extreme environmental predictions have almost never borne out in the long run. Some of the more moderate ones have. Including "climate change" in this list is pretty risible, really. The "coming ice age" predictions have certainly fallen into the memory hole, no? The current 8-9 year plateau in global average temperatures was certainly never predicted either.

  • ||

    "Barring some technological or political change, population decline is inevitable."

    I am rooting for personal-replacement-cloning and cybernetics to make the issue moot. Offworld asteroid mining will make mineral shortages moot; and O'Neil colonies will make Biodiversity Earth's best resource (biosamples don't weigh much). Biodiversity is thus worth preserving.

    "The "coming ice age" predictions have certainly fallen into the memory hole, no? "

    I realize you said 'environmental predictions' without stating who made these prediction. These were largely the product of the media (newsweek et al), not the climate scientists; there were a total of about 7 peer reviewed science papers from the '70s which suggested a more or less imminent Ice Age (without being misquoted etc., NewsWeek et al, started the trend with misquotes and bad reporting from two papers); there were many many more peer reviewed science articles predicting warming from the same period.

    "The current 8-9 year plateau in global average temperatures was certainly never predicted either."

    I disagree. Basing the 'plateau' from the 1998 spike, not from the real multi-year trend line from the same time is a common mistake. And we are currently in a temperature pit due to both La Nina and a trough in a solar cycle, neither of which actually detract from the still positive longer term (10.5 year) temperature trend.

    Until the third effect is large enough to offset the first two, adding an additional person creates more happiness for humanity as a whole. It is extremely unlikely that we are anywhere near this point.


    Not necessarily, go Offworld, and soon. The only thing lacking out-there is life.

    "Not all methods of birth control require technology or deep thought"

    Deep Thought proved limited in answers...it was the questions which needed to be nailed down first (and glued, taped, stapled, etc) I mean really, 42 what? Children? Best weight in Kilos?

  • Terry||

    stuartl:"Do you have any sources/data to back this? I have ...".
    I'm interested, too.
    Would be great if you could send me some data.
    Nice article and comments.

  • KenK||

    http://michellemalkin.com/2008/07/18/food-crisis-global-depression-worsens/

    When somebody yells famine I want to see skinny people - not tub-o-lard people.

    Reminds me of what one guy said about why he wanted to get into the USA any way he could:

    I want to go to a country where the poor people are FAT!

  • ||

    The winning bids of demand in the face of supply set the price.

    If production of a thing requires other factors -- energy, material and the like -- and if the winning bids set a price insufficient to cover the expenses (price x quantity bought) of those factors, then society has deemed production of such a thing inefficient and an imprudent use of resources.

    Thus producers get put to ruin and the thing does not get produced. Yet, the false belief that a shortage has arisen is illusory.

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