Malthus Redux: Losing the Race to Feed the World?

Review of The End of Plenty


Food Crisis

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.


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.