Overpopulation

Malthus Redux: Losing the Race to Feed the World?

Review of The End of Plenty

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Food Crisis
skepticalsurvivalist

The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., Norton, 408 pp., $27.95

"The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man," declared Thomas Robert Malthus in his An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. The result of this imbalance, Malthus concluded, is that some portion of humanity must necessarily suffer and die of famine. For more than two centuries, the stark logic of Malthus' argument has entranced and beguiled the minds of many would-be population theorists. The fiercest modern disciple of Malthus is Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now," declared Ehrlich in The Population Bomb back in 1968. 

Nearly 50 years later, we know that Ehrlich's grim augury of global famine was wrong. In fact, at the time Ehrlich was writing, agronomist Norman Borlaug had already embarked on just such a crash program to dramatically boost agricultural production–the Green Revolution. So instead of global famine, food production tripled even as world population doubled. As a result, the amount of daily calories per capita rose from 2,400 in 1960 to nearly 3,000 today. 

The old Malthusian doctrine, nevertheless, continues to enthrall. In his book, The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World, journalist  Joel K. Bourne, Jr. asserts, "The world is running out of food." Why? Because, he argues, "Malthus's basic challenge to the world remains. We are locked in a never-ending two-step between our numbers and the sustenance we can wrest from 6 inches of topsoil."

As evidence that humanity remains "caught in Malthus's vise," Bourne points to the recent steep run-up in food prices. In real terms, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that the food price index soared in the past decade to very nearly the peak it achieved during the last "food crisis" in the mid-1970s. The good news is that the food price index has now dropped halfway back to its turn-of-the-century low because farmers predictably responded to higher prices by growing more food.

EndofPlenty
Norton

Bourne properly celebrates the accomplishment of Borlaug and the Green Revolution but believes that it is now played out. Although Bourne is a convinced Malthusian, he is not as prophetically dour as Ehrlich. Bourne believes that humanity has a good chance to win the race to feed a crowded world. "The hard reality is that unless we radically alter the way we live, eat, and farm–or are blessed with a technological miracle as beneficial as Borlaug's short-stemmed wheat–it's hard to see how we will be able to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050," asserts Bourne. He argues that "we will need to grow nearly twice the amount of food that we currently produce by 2050," largely because he expects lots of grain to be used to feed animals for meat production and to produce biofuels.

Are miracles really necessary? Farmers in many developing countries have not deployed the full range of modern crop technologies. As a result, cereal grain yields per hectare in India average around 3 tons per hectare compared to 7.3 tons per hectare in the United States. Yields in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, are half India's at 1.5 tons per hectare. Obviously, there is plenty of scope for widening the deployment of current agricultural technologies to grow more food for the world's burgeoning population. Bourne worries that farmers will have to plow down more forests and prairies in order to feed people. Researchers at Rockefeller University counter that—because the backlog of productivity enhancing technologies—humanity is on the verge of "peak farmland" and that by 2060 farmers will have returned an area 10 times the size of Iowa to nature, and even more if governments stop subsidizing biofuels.

In any case, Bourne does recognize that technological miracles are in the agricultural development pipeline. Among them are crops genetically modified to resist pests, disease, drought, flooding, and salinity. He points out that "the environmental and health nightmares that many anti-GMO [genetically modified organisms] groups feared have yet to materialize." Further genetic enhancement of crops can significantly boost yields. Bourne notes, for example, that researchers are hard at work on transferring corn's more efficient C-4 form of photosynthesis into C-3 grains like rice. Success would increase rice productivity by 50 percent or so. Other researchers are working on crop varieties that use less nitrogen fertilizer while increasing their yields. Such crops will be especially useful to farmers in poor countries, where fertilizer is an expensive input.

Bourne reports that the yields of organic farming at the Rodale Institute are equal to those of conventional farms, but most researchers have generally found that organic yields are lower. On the other hand, Bourne is right that combining the soil enhancing practices of organic farming with modern yield boosting technologies like genetic modification could yield the best of both agronomic worlds.  Bourne also reports on how the "system of rice intensification" crop management raises yields substantially by changing the way rice plants are spaced, the way crop residues are retained on the land, and by using far less water for irrigation. In addition, he shows how aquaculture on both land and in the sea will increase protein production dramatically while sparing wild populations of fish.

The surge in food prices also occurred because huge amounts are being diverted into biofuels. Bourne notes that the International Food Policy Research Institute calculated that biofuel production drove up food prices by 40 to 70 percent. The calories in the 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop that is used to produce biofuel would be enough to feed everyone in Africa for a year. In addition, reducing the third of food that is discarded, spoiled, or eaten by pests would increase supplies by nearly 50 percent.

In support of this Malthusianism, Bourne cites economist John Maynard Keynes' famous assertion, "The idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer great resistance to acting on it in practice." But Bourne does not recognize that he, himself, is in thrall to conventional thinking. Lots of food production in the future will no longer be confined to fields and pastures. For example, milk may well be efficiently produced by genetically modified yeast growing in tanks. Meat may also be cultured in vats. I have previously shown that a comprehensive switch to such factory-farming would spare half of the land used for crops in the United States and essentially all of the land currently devoted to pasture.

Of course, if fewer people are born over the next several decades that would substantially reduce the need to produce more food. Bourne is correct that providing women property rights, seven years of education at least, and access to contraception would enable them to choose the number of children that they really want to have. The demographers at the International Institute for Applies Systems Analysis forecast that the trends toward making higher levels of education available to women will significantly slow future population growth.

If the 75 million unwanted pregnancies in the developing world were prevented, Bourne points out that the global fertility rate would fall almost immediately below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. World population would peak at 8.4 billion by 2050 and fall back to 7.3 billion by 2100. (As a preview of how fast population growth can reverse, consider that—based on current trends—China's population of 1.3 billion will fall to around 400 million by 2100.)

The biggest puzzle of this book is that while Bourne recognizes and describes many positive trends in food production and population, he still can't quite shake off his allegiance to the old Malthusian creed. Nevertheless, farmers and researchers are already well on the way to winning the race to feed a crowded world.

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  1. Doomsday cults will always be popular.

    1. They are an industry with an unlimited growth potential.

      1. Surely there exists a Peak Doomsday.

        1. Peak Doomsday will come at the same time as Peak Stupid.

          IOW, never.

    2. The end of doomsday cults is at hand! /snicker

  2. It sounds like he’s just saying something that’s a self-evident truism: “If we don’t improve how much food we produce in any way, shape, or form, then eventually there will be more people than we can feed.”

    Well, no shit. What’s baffling is that he then goes on to list all the many ways that we will almost certainly improve how much food we produce, thus making the problem as unlikely now as it was in the 60s.

  3. Hardly surprising that this kind of nonsense gets published. Next it will be a 60 Minutes segment, then a proposed bill in Congress, then…nothing will happen.

    1. The bill will be named after some cute, sad kid who was hungry one time, get passed because who could be against feeding the chilluns? Will have the effect of exacerbating the problem, which sets the stage for MOAR REGULASHION, rinse and repeat until we have an actual food shortage.

  4. Even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long almost-dead economist biologist

  5. RB: I’m curious, does Bourne discuss any of the methods of restoring desertified lands for grazing that Allan Savory has been discussing for the last few years?

    I have read the pros and cons of Savory’s theories, and it appears that the pros are winning. Restoring desert grasslands with livestock may help defeat yet another Malthusian prophecy.

  6. Doomsayers gonna say doom.

  7. Wow, what an idiot.

    I am currently living on land and turning one good field that once grew food into woodland. Why? Because the land isn’t worth much to me to grow food, I’d rather have trees.

    I grew up on land that had been woodland for decades, but before that it was a farm. Why isn’t it a farm now? Because there is better land in the great plains that grow more food. That land simply couldn’t compete with the better farmland.

    What these idiots should do is get out of their (comparatively) small cities and get out to the massive amounts of undeveloped land. There you can see the market at work, as once was used to feed a family and make a living is now ignored and let go back to nature… because food is relatively cheap.

    And let’s not even get started with the government purposely propping up food prices!

    1. What species are you planting?

      I have a good chunk of timberland. Two generations ago it was all farmland, every acre.
      Now the hills are covered in pine and cherry, the bottoms in oak, poplar, pecan and cypress.

      1. I just planted blue and norway spruce. Next I think I’ll plant something that makes something I can eat like walnut or chestnut.

  8. So let’s prevent the yield and quality improvements from genetic modifications. That’s bound to help.

  9. As evidence that humanity remains “caught in Malthus’s vise,” Bourne points to the recent steep run-up in food prices.

    Why would he think that an increase in prices is evidence of a “Malthusian vise” and not a market signal to produce more food?

    it’s hard to see how we will be able to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050,” asserts Bourne

    His lack of imagination is not evidence of a problem.

    Doomsayers have been predicting the population glut vs. the lack of food for CENTURIES. They never learn. But we all do not seem to learn, either, that these predictions are not to be taken seriously because they’re just the wet-dreams and crazy musings of irrational misanthropes and sociopaths.

  10. As evidence that humanity remains “caught in Malthus’s vise,” Bourne points to the recent steep run-up in food prices. In real terms, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that the food price index soared in the past decade to very nearly the peak it achieved during the last “food crisis” in the mid-1970s.

    Of course that wouldn’t have anything to do with asinine decision to subsidize ethanol would it?

  11. L: To be fair, Bourne does point out the stupidity of turning food into subsidized fuel.

    1. The green movement was about 10 years behind .Reason in pointing that out.

    2. But we’re running out of energy faster than we’re running out of food.
      [WTI= $48.21]

  12. Must have not heard of CRISPR before he wrote the book.

  13. “As evidence that humanity remains “caught in Malthus’s vise,” Bourne points to the recent steep run-up in food prices.”

    Ethanol.

    And last I heard there was supposedly a real chance that the ethanol mandate would end this year, with the article predicting a large drop in food prices, particularly meats.

    1. And last I heard there was supposedly a real chance that the ethanol mandate would end this year

      “Government mandate” + “end” = Does Not Compute.

  14. Ron: just finished a long drive during which my wife read your excellent book to me. Exactly as I predicted it has cheered her up substantially.

    Thank you.

  15. The conclusion drawn by these Malthusian leftoid doomsdayers is entirely consistent with their fundamental premises (which they seldomly acknowledge in explicit formulation): they recognize no difference between thinking humans and mindless animals. Animals lead a scavenging, snatch-as-snatch-can existence in nature–and they think (ironically) that humans exist in the same manner. That’s why they always talk about earth and natural resources–they are completely oblivious to what creates the value of natural resources, the thinking human mind.

    Ayn Rand was pointing this out fifty years ago, and she’s still got the number of those “modern mystics of muscle.”

  16. Leftists consistently underestimate the ability of humanity to adapt. They make predictions by extrapolating a short term trend out to infinity while discounting any adaptation.

    If a change is not too sudden or too drastic, we will adapt and move on. The price of food goes up, we produce more or consume/waste less. The price of oil goes up, we drive less, buy more efficient cars, turn down the thermostat, find new ways to extract previously unprofitable fossil fuels. Now if the govt of CA would increase the price of water for agriculture, the drought wouldn’t be such a problem. Food prices would rise, people would consume less or devote more of their budget to it. The average American could stand to drop a few lbs anyway.

    As a corollary this is why they don’t understand the Laffer curve, minimum wage, or markets generally.

    1. MeatBorg|7.24.15 @ 3:44PM|#
      “Leftists consistently underestimate the ability of humanity to adapt. They make predictions by extrapolating a short term trend out to infinity while discounting any adaptation.”

      Further, they make predictions based on the behaviors of non-sentient populations: Rat’s out run their feed supply and die off!
      Well, yeah, and rats don’t bother to improve their feed supply, either.

    2. “Leftists consistently underestimate the ability of humanity to adapt.”

      To be fair, if the left have their way, humans will lose a significant part of our capacity for adaption.

    3. Leftists consistently underestimate the ability of humanity to adapt.

      So does the Right: they think any change in social mores relative to a fictitious historical norm spells the end of humanity.

      Unfortunately, both the Left and the Right are doomsday cults bent on shackling and destroying humanity, they just choose different daemons to worship.

  17. “‘The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,’ declared Thomas Robert Malthus in his An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. The result of this imbalance, Malthus concluded, is that some portion of humanity must necessarily suffer and die of famine.”

    Malthus was a good enough economist that he didn’t think humanity would overpopulate and then starve a la Ehrlich; he thought populations would expand only to the point where they could be sustained by the arithmetically limited food sources. That was pretty common in the 18th century among intellectuals, many of whom believed that it wasn’t something to worry about, but a positive statement of fact–human beings economize, and we economize how many kids we have on the basis of available food sources, among other things.

    It took an economically illiterate ecologist to come up with something crazy like people breeding like rabbits in an epoch defined by persistent global famine.

    1. Yep. Malthus thought that there would always be starvation (or other serious mortality) at the margin of humanity, and that was essentially unfixable.

      1. Reading the quote again, I realize that was probably Ron’s intended meaning rather than casting Malthus as a proto-Ehrlich doomspeaker.

  18. This guy will totally back up his predictions with a bet, right?

    1. That gives me an idea… Maybe we should challenge these global warming alarmists to make wagers. Years ago, they were all shouting about how NYC will be completely underwater by 2013, etc., and they’re saying the same stuff today, just with the date moved forward a few years.

      I think we could make a killing.

      1. We’d do better with a database, like those in sports, where each prognosticator had a statistical fraction representing correct predictions out of the total made.

        1. Nobody gave a fuck that Obama spent trillions on a stimulus program that had the opposite effect than predicted. What makes you think anybody would care about whether the predictions of these authors are true?

          In fact, you can simply score their past books and their predictions are universally wrong, and yet they keep writing. No doomsday prophet has ever been stopped by facts or incorrect predictions.

  19. Other researchers are working on crop varieties that use less nitrogen fertilizer while increasing their yields. Such crops will be especially useful to farmers in poor countries, where fertilizer is an expensive input.

    Of your could try planting legumes before/with your nitrogen hungry crops. 😀

  20. That was a lot of words to say “Joel K. Bourne, Jr is a moron.”

  21. An apropos quote:

    “How many pessimists end up desiring the things they fear, in order to prove that they are right?”
    –Robert Mallett

    1. How many environmental pessimists are simply misanthropic elitists in green clothing?

    2. Better for a hundred million Indians to starve than for me to abandon my career-making thesis.

      -Paul Ehrlich

  22. It’s a well known fact that people are edible. We have to run out of people before we run out of food.

  23. Ron, I have to thank you for reading this; you saved me hours of shouting at damn-fool statements and hanging several bundles of stickee-notes to the pages. See here:

    “On the other hand, Bourne is right that combining the soil enhancing practices of organic farming with modern yield boosting technologies like genetic modification could yield the best of both agronomic worlds.”

    Sorry, I missed what is ‘best’ of organic foods. Is it avoiding the stigma of lost cost? Not being able to hold up your end of the conversation when some whacko starts whinging on about ‘factory crops’?
    There must be something…

    1. There really isn’t much.

      The results indicate that organic farming generally leads to
      higher SOM content, but some conventional farming systems do
      have the potential to achieve similar or even higher SOM levels
      when they include the application of manures.

      So shit on your field and there will be more shit in the dirt. Stunning conclusion, I know.

  24. “The biggest puzzle of this book is that while Bourne recognizes and describes many positive trends in food production and population, he still can’t quite shake off his allegiance to the old Malthusian creed.”

    Well, it’s not really a puzzle at all. Nobody buys books claiming that the humanity _isn’t_ about to be hit by a massive Malthusian catastrophe.

  25. consider that?based on current trends?China’s population of 1.3 billion will fall to around 400 million by 2100

    Who will assemble our iPhones then?

    1. I keep my orphans and widows locked in the basement polishing my monocles. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to transition them over to assembling electronics devices. Unless I get hungry first. They are damn good eating.

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  27. I can only see this being a serious problem if the population explosion in Africa is now thwarted. Contraception use needs to be a condition upon which foreign aid & charity is provided.

    1. *not* thwarted

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