What Global Food Crisis?: Ronald Bailey's Wall Street Journal Review of The Reproach of Hunger

Neo-Malthusians still get it wrong: Markets and science will feed 9 billion if not blocked.



Today, I have a review in the Wall Street Journal of journalist David Rieff's turgid new Neo-Malthusian tome, The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century. In particular, Rieff disdains those who argue that liberal capitalism and technological progress are key to ameliorating hunger around the globe. Below are a couple of excerpts from the review:

In the late 18th century, Robert Thomas Malthus argued that human population growth would always outstrip food production, thus perpetually condemning some portion of humanity to famine. His disciples today are now pointing to recent steep increases in food prices as harbingers of a new age of scarcity. Global food prices have indeed been soaring, along with other commodity prices, since 2005. In real terms, the Food and Agriculture Organization's price index crested in 2011 at 60% above its 2005 price levels. Farmers around the world predictably reacted to the higher prices by growing more food. World cereal production rose from 2,348 million tons in 2011 to 2,540 million tons today. Since the 2011 peak, food prices have been drifting downward, although they remain 18% higher than they were a decade or so ago.


Cue the prophets of doom. Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute has said that the world is now at "peak everything." He has further warned that humanity is "waking up to a century of declines." In 2013, Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown asserted: "The world is in transition from an era of food abundance to one of scarcity." Journalist Joel K. Bourne Jr. declared earlier this year, in his book "The End of Plenty," that "the world is running out of food."

Now comes the neo-Malthusian journalist David Rieff. He argues in "The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century" that "if significant changes to the global food system are not made, a crisis of absolute global food supply could occur sometime between 2030 and 2050." Mr. Rieff's argument is halfhearted in comparison to Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich's bold 1968 pronouncement, in "The Population Bomb," that "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."

The chief question for Mr. Rieff is: Will it be possible to feed the nine billion people who will most likely be living on the planet by the middle of this century? He writes that, "in the main," his "own views are pessimistic." But he immediately acknowledges the possibility of predictive failure and declares: "I insist that it is entirely possible that twenty years from now, it is the optimists who will be proven right."

I conclude:

The recipe for prosperity is known: strong property rights, a free press, the rule of law, free trade, honest bureaucracies, limited government and democratic politics. In other words: liberal capitalism. If more of humanity adopts this recipe, the optimists will indeed be proved right and Mr. Rieff wrong.

Go here to read the whole review at the Journal (behind a paywall).

By the way, I have a new book out that explains the recent runup in commodity prices and how markets and the application of science, if unleashed, will be able to feed 9 to 10 billion people by the middle of this century, all the while substantially reducing the amount of land farmed around the globe.