Will Malthus Have the Last Laugh?

We're heading towards a future of higher food prices and more hunger.

Lester Brown has the rundown on the world’s grain production — and things aren’t pretty:

On the supply side, there was a time when grain production was on the rise almost everywhere. That world is now history. In a number of countries, grain harvests are shrinking because of aquifer depletion and severe soil erosion. Rising temperatures are also taking a toll. And some agriculturally advanced countries have run out of new technology to raise land productivity.

In 18 countries containing half the world’s people, overpumping for irrigation is depleting aquifers. Among the countries where harvests are falling as aquifers are depleted are Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. World Bank data for India indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping, which by definition is a short-term phenomenon. The comparable number for China is 130 million people.

In some countries such as Mongolia and Lesotho, grain production has fallen by half or more in recent decades as severe soil erosion has led to wholesale cropland abandonment. In North Korea and Haiti, soil erosion is undermining efforts to raise output.

The bottom line: we’ll probably see an increase in grain production in the next few years, but it will be minor, and we’re heading towards a leveling off of grain production. Couple that with a growing world population, and the inevitable result is going to be higher food prices and more hunger.

For a while, it looked like we might have staved off Malthus’ prediction that population growth would outstrip the food supply. Agricultural scientists following the lead of Norman Bourlaug led the “Green Revolution” — a variety of methods that led to increased crop yields, and helped bring Inida and other Asian nations away from the brink of starvation.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with the “Green Revolution” that wasn’t apparent at first. Those higher-yield methods of farming lead to increased susceptibility of crops to disease, and they also deplete the soil far more rapidly than traditional methods. So while in the short term the Green Revolution was nothing short of a miracle, there simply haven’t been any technological advances since then that put enough of a dent in the soil erosion problem to make a difference.

I hope that there are solutions pending to this problem. In the meantime, one lucky break that might prevent a Malthusian catastrophe is the simple fact that the human population already appears to be heading towards a trend of leveling off, rather than growing exponentially. Hopefully, this will be a managable problem rather than a full-blown crisis.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Environment, Food
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Nick says:

    There are several things not accounted for here that are important:
    1. We are diverting more of our staple food supplies like corn to fuel, instead of eating it.
    2. A lot of farm land in susceptible places like Africa are still heavily affected by continuing war which artificially reduces productivity through destruction and theft.




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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    3. Countries including but not limited to the United States have destructive policies (including import and export quotas) in place.




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  3. James Joyner says:

    I had the same thought as Nick on the immorality of ethanol.

    Not to make light of a more serious problem: What impact will this have on liquor prices?




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  4. JD says:

    Isn’t most of our domestic ethanol production subsidized? So we’re propping up ethanol production at a cost of higher food prices?




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  5. Ej says:

    every single time over the last 100 years that someone makes a neo mathusian argument that the world’s resources are about to be depleted it never ends up happening. Remember “Population Bomb?” Temporarily higher prices induce higher efforts to innovate and some new productivity enhancing technologies get developed. This is what has always happened and is why the inflation adjusted costs of food over the past 200 years has continued to trend downward.




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  6. ponce says:

    The next bird guano is just around the corner.




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  7. Tony says:

    I was discussing this issue a few days ago. I think the food riots in S.E. Asia were one of last year’s most under-reported stories.

    That said, while it doesn’t do to be a Pollyanna, it’s hard to argue that we currently have things arranged in anything like an optimal way, so there are things that can be done to at least make the situation less severe.

    First off, both the USA and the EU have very restrictive practices when it comes to agriculture. The EU Common Agricultural Policy is a disgrace on many, many levels.

    Second, we need to stop with the bio-ethanol. It’s a massive, massive boondoggle and as fads go it couldn’t possibly have come along at a worse time.

    Third, at some point the EU is going to have to get over its (largely unscientific) aversion to GM. The problem with EU policy in this area is that it is having a major knock-on impact in terms of preventing the spread of GM and new methods to Africa because if the Africans adopt them then effectively the whole of Europe is closed off to them as an export market.




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  8. Andre Kenji says:

    1-) There is lot of space in Latin America that still can used to produce food.

    2-) In fact, most of Africa is more friendly to food production than several agricultural exporting places in Brazil were in the 1960´s.




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  9. Alex Knapp says:

    @EJ –

    every single time over the last 100 years that someone makes a neo mathusian argument that the world’s resources are about to be depleted it never ends up happening. Remember “Population Bomb?” Temporarily higher prices induce higher efforts to innovate and some new productivity enhancing technologies get developed.

    This strikes me as being rather magical thinking. The world is finite, after all, and there are only a certain number of ways to do things. Perhaps there are new technogical innovations that can increase crop yields, but just because such innovations have occurred in a cost-effective manner in the past is no guarantee that they’ll do so in the future.




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  10. Ej says:

    “The world is finite, after all, and there are only a certain number of ways to do things.”

    Sure, there is some theoretical max. And past trends dont guarentee future results. But making claims that we are somehow at a technolgy wall also has no bearing. There is no evidence of global productivity growth slowing down. In fact, growth of global incomes per capita have been accelerating over the past two decades. If there is indeed some limit on technology, theres no evidence that we are near it right now. Even with the recent run up in commodites prices in the past 5 years, in real terms, food stuffs, metals, and energy are still cheaper than they have been for most of the industrial era.

    History is littered with far more people proclaiming the near exaustion of natural resources that end up being incorrect than the other way around.




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  11. john personna says:

    We have a lot of headroom. We have lawns. We have golf courses. We farm fresh flowers. We divert calories into alcohol products. We do lossy grain to animal conversion.

    We’ll be hitting the wall when we notice that everyone has gone Vegan based on cost, and that coffee is priced like Scotch.

    (You been hanging with the Peakers again Alex? “Peak everything,” it gets in the brain.)




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  12. reid says:

    This is one of those subjects I don’t know much about (no wisecracks!), but how much of the efficiency gains in the last several decades have been because of petroleum-based solutions? I was figuring quite a lot, which doesn’t bode well for the long term if true.




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  13. john personna says:

    BTW, speaking of everyone going Vegan, increased meat-eating in China is actually counter that trend, and a sign that we have gained, not lost, headroom.




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  14. Alex Knapp says:

    @john,

    I don’t think it’s a problem, yet, but the rate of loss of arable land is disturbing.




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  15. PD Shaw says:

    The primary areas of grain expansion are going to be South America, the Former Soviet Republics (dependent on stabilization), and China (if it can remove the excesses of it’s planning).

    reid, natural gas is used to make fertilizers. It’s price can spike due to what is happening in the energy sector, but the relationship to petroleum is indirect. And as I understand it, it’s the hydrogen that is used, and that can be found elsewhere if natural gas gets expensive.




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  16. Steven Plunk says:

    Political unrest and wars cause famine in the modern world. Malthus based his erroneous predictions on limited land and crop technology. We have proven his theories wrong time and time again.

    People use Malthusian predictions as a political tool more than a warning for actual famine and death. Especially environmentalists.




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  17. Ej says:

    steven, though i totally agree his models are not relevent today, people are too hard on Malthus himself. In his world where there was little capital and technology development, and the only main inputs to production were labor and land, his theories do hold weight. Malthus did live in a world that largely acted in the way he described. It was only once the industrial revolution took off that productivity gains outpaced any improvement in the mortality rate and therefore standard of living could increase substantially.




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  18. Tylerh says:

    “Will Malthus Have the Last Laugh?”

    NO.

    Thomas Malthus explained why: population grows until it hits a constraint. Since population growth happened uncontrollably in Malthus’s world, that constraint was had to be resource based. Since 1960s, there has been another way to impose the growth constraint: birth control.

    So long as women can choose the number and timing of their children, they will not bring children into the world to watch them starve.

    Problem solved.

    But don’t take my word for it — look at the trend in birth rates throughout the world over the last twenty years.




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  19. Alex Knapp says:

    Steve and EJ,

    based his erroneous predictions on limited land and crop technology

    I agree… but now we’re approaching a point where we again have limited land and crop technology. Arable land is declining at an increasing rate, and technological saturation is at a point where yields are not declining, but they are increasing at a decreased rate and we’re looking at a potential leveling off.

    As I mentioned at the end of my post, I don’t think we’ll experience a full-blown Malthusian crisis because crop yields are slowing, but so is human population growth. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see food prices rise in the near term and stabilize at a higher rate than current.




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  20. john personna says:

    “Arable land is declining at an increasing rate”

    Does that really make sense? My condo complex has 40 acres of greenbelt. Is it “gone” as arable land?




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  21. Alex Knapp says:

    John,

    Does that really make sense? My condo complex has 40 acres of greenbelt. Is it “gone” as arable land?

    No, but soil erosion and desertification do make it so. 8,000 years ago, Egyptians were farming in the Sahara. Now that’s impossible.




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  22. john personna says:

    Aren’t there also places that were deserts 8,000 years ago, but are now farms?

    Gross potential arable area (rainfed) km^2: 41,440,170

    Net potential arable area (rainfed) km^2: 38,488,090

    Utilized arable area in 1994 (including irrigation) km^2: 14,633,840

    That looks like some headroom to me, there is a LOT of non-utilized arable land.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arable_land

    You really have been talking to the Peakers.




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  23. The sky is falling. Again.




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  24. john personna says:

    (BTW, I think loss of big-ocean fish is both a more real and a more pressing problem.

    The sky is not uniformly falling.)




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  25. Drew says:

    “We have a lot of headroom. We have lawns. We have golf courses.”

    You take away my golf course and I’ll come out there and smash your mountain bike and then killya………..




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  26. john personna says:

    For some reason Drew, that reminds me of the old Monty Python sketch … “Milord the peasants object to your shooting” “Nonsense. Pull!” and a peasant goes flying in the air “aaaaaa…”

    But as I was telling Alex, we are not at all at a golf-or-food decision point. And maybe they’ll terrace my mountains before then.




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  27. Steve Verdon says:

    The bottom line: we’ll probably see an increase in grain production in the next few years, but it will be minor, and we’re heading towards a leveling off of grain production. Couple that with a growing world population, and the inevitable result is going to be higher food prices and more hunger.

    More proof that bad ideas never die and always find new adherents.

    Look at some of the problems like soil erosion….how much of that is due to over-farming and how much of that is due to boneheaded policies that promote over-farming? I’d argue that the U.S. does too much farming and that if we removed trade barriers other countries that don’t farm nearly enough would pick up the slack.

    I also love the “no new technology” argument. Is that kind of like IBMs statement that the world wide demand for computers is 3? I think so.

    For a while, it looked like we might have staved off Malthus’ prediction that population growth would outstrip the food supply. Agricultural scientists following the lead of Norman Bourlaug led the “Green Revolution” — a variety of methods that led to increased crop yields, and helped bring Inida and other Asian nations away from the brink of starvation.

    First off Malthus made no predictions, at least nothing useful. Malthus prediction of along the lines, eventually something really really bad will happen to the world. Well…yeah, even if the probability is 0.000001 given enough time, something bad is going to happen. It is a trivial statement and if we are to base policy on it…well we are really really f*cking stupid.

    Second of all, Bourlaug came along well after Malthus made his “predictions”, and most of the research I read on this was that starvation was often political in nature. For example, using starvation to squash a rebellion. That isn’t a validation of the Malthusian model though.

    Malthus’ model was incredibly simple…perhaps too simple. For example, as food prices rise, might child bearing decisions be impacted? Is child bearing exogenous to food prices, and the costs of supporting that child, or is it endogenous? Does research on improving farming practices depend on food prices? If so, then the likelihood of a break through may very well be an increasing function of food prices. That could make the point of intersection between the population and food production lines harder to pin down. In other words, there are a number of feedback loops here that I don’t think have been that well explored by people blubbering along on the interwebs.

    In the meantime, one lucky break that might prevent a Malthusian catastrophe is the simple fact that the human population already appears to be heading towards a trend of leveling off, rather than growing exponentially.

    Oh…so you’ll conveniently ditch the Malthusian model now?

    Yes, what we should have done is listen to Ehrlich and sterilized all those damned Indians. We didn’t and now look! [/sarcasm]

    People use Malthusian predictions as a political tool more than a warning for actual famine and death. Especially environmentalists.

    And look, the linked article is from the founder of the Earth Policy Institute…my what a coinkydink. Good call Plunk.




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  28. Louis Wheeler says:

    Geez, what al load of Green catastrophe mongering. The last three winters have set records for cold and snow, yet this article drags out Global Warming to bore us with.

    We are experiencing problems, but Malthus or population increase has little to do with it. The UN says that birth rates are declining world wide and that population will peak at 9 Billion around 2050. Better standards of living always reduce birth rates.

    The world is experiencing erratic weather due to entering the cold phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. It is perfectly normal for disease to strike back at crops. The E-99 Wheat Rust is troubling, but I am expecting a Genetically Modified replacement.

    Our biggest problem in the next three years is due to the decline of the Dollar as the world’s currency reserve. If hyper inflation hits the dollar all world currencies will be affected, since the central banks hold the T bills and dollars outside of the US. It is unclear what the Fed will do in June when QE2 is supposed to end, but probably won’t. If QE2 continues, then a hyper inflationary depression is a couple years away. It will be quite scary before we hit bottom. Only after we hit bottom can a rational, rather than an easy money, economy grow.

    The best thing we could do is to end the FED. It has been the engine of inflation in the US. Easy money policies always lead to a banking panic or a hyperinflation. The Fed has distorted the American economy for almost a hundred years. It is time for that to end.




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  29. Alex Knapp says:

    john,

    Absolutely there are places that aren’t desert that used to be. Absolutely there’s still plenty of arable land left. What the article quoted points out, though, is that yields right now are just barely high enough to maintain price stability. While it’s true we can turn to yards and golf courses, that’s not the most attractive option.

    Steve,

    Look at some of the problems like soil erosion….how much of that is due to over-farming and how much of that is due to boneheaded policies that promote over-farming? I’d argue that the U.S. does too much farming and that if we removed trade barriers other countries that don’t farm nearly enough would pick up the slack.

    Column A and Column B, I would imagine. Both technology and policy are to blame.

    First off Malthus made no predictions, at least nothing useful. Malthus prediction of along the lines, eventually something really really bad will happen to the world.

    The basic Malthusian prediction is that population will grow exponentially, but food supplies will grow linearly. The result is that population will eventually outstrip food supply. The reality is that it looks like both are on more of an S-curve than expoential or linear.

    Second of all, Bourlaug came along well after Malthus made his “predictions”, and most of the research I read on this was that starvation was often political in nature. For example, using starvation to squash a rebellion. That isn’t a validation of the Malthusian model though.

    In some places starvation was political. In Asia it had more to do with population outstripping crop yields. Bourlaug’s team helped solve the short-term yield issue, but in the long-term planted to seeds for arable land destruction.

    I also love the “no new technology” argument. Is that kind of like IBMs statement that the world wide demand for computers is 3? I think so.

    Technology isn’t magic. If you’re going to assume that there’s a technological solution, there has to be some sort of scientific basis for it. Right now the best bet for increasing crop yields is genetic engineering, but to date while genetic engineering has produced crops with some improved yields, those improvements are, as of yet, not signficant enough to overcome the current issues. Perhaps that will change, but the most recent literature I’ve reviewed isn’t actually very hopeful on that score.

    The argument that somehow, some way, humans will develop a technology to overcome every problem isn’t a scientific argument — it’s a religious one.

    Oh…so you’ll conveniently ditch the Malthusian model now?

    Given the trends as I see them, I think that population and food supplies are on an S-curbe, but food supplies are leveling off now, while population levelling off is a decade or two away. That has the potential to lead to a situation where food prices stabilize, but stabilize at a higher level than is current.

    Yes, what we should have done is listen to Ehrlich and sterilized all those damned Indians. We didn’t and now look!

    You’re making a rejoinder to an argument I didn’t make. Rather, you’re imagining an argument that I didn’t make, and rejoidnering to that. I’m pretty sure there’s a term for that….

    And look, the linked article is from the founder of the Earth Policy Institute

    Hm, saying an argument is invalid because of the source of the argument rather than its merits. I’m pretty sure there’s a term for that, too….




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  30. john personna says:

    “While it’s true we can turn to yards and golf courses, that’s not the most attractive option.”

    Not to put too fine a point on it, our most “attractive” option would be to eat less at this point.

    See also obesity in China.




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  31. milprof says:

    >”There is no evidence of global productivity growth slowing down. ”

    With agriculture, there is somewhat. The Economist had a large section on food prices/production a few weeks ago and the data they presented showed that gains in yield from cereal crops have leveled off — certainly growing more slowly than demand is increasing.




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  32. Dave Schuler says:

    I think you’re worrying about the wrong things, Alex. China’s biggest problems are air, water, and soil pollution, bad land management, and its policy of food self-sufficiency.

    India has a a similar set of problems. The underlying problem is politics.

    Here we aren’t losing prime farm land because it’s tapped out; we’re losing it because it’s being paved over and developed. That’s slowed now since the end of the housing bubble. A smart land management policy would result in less sprawl and more conservation of prime farm land. It may not be apparent but the the U. S. has a lot of under-exploited farmland—under-exploited because there are no markets that will buy at a price that makes sense to put the land into service.




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  33. Let me guess, having a larger government will somehow help stave off this problem.




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  34. Oh, and is this something that you believe Malthus found funny?




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  35. Ben Wolf says:

    Study here from the University of Minnesota

    http://www.farmfoundation.org/news/articlefiles/1705-Pardey%20.pdf

    You can see that growth in annual crop yields have dropped by 50% or more since 1990. The authors also emphasize that more and more of the technologies developed for increasing yields are being diverted to just maintaining the yields we have now. Water shortages, severe soil erosion and heat damage from a warming climate are stressing crops beyond their natural tolerances.

    And before anyone blathers on about how new technologies will save the day, we had 500 million food-insecure people in 1960. We have one billion food-insecure people today and the number continues to grow.




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  36. Oh dear, we’re running out of food. Oh dear, we’re too fat. Whatever.




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  37. Axel Edgren says:

    Until the self-entitled and degenerate Westerners stop demanding continually subsidized carbon energy, no technology today or in the future can keep crop levels sufficient. Not to mention the lack of potable water that will be inflicted.

    Greenhouse gas creating energy, production and consumption is too cheap. We are begging the governments to lie to us and to not protect future generations from our actions. An unfit species that will be culled.




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  38. Ben Wolf says:

    Fortunately Charles Austin is on the case, developing new methods that will grearly increase food production. Tell us what wonders you have in store Charles, so that we might marvel at the ingenuity of the free market in all its glory.

    Oh, you’re counting on someone else to do all that, aren’t you? Funny how the “market will provide crowd” always expect others to do the heavy lifting in maintaining their lifestyles.




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  39. Axel Edgren says:

    Why would the market in the US create a solution for the desertification and water scarcity US actions will cause in Africa and Bangladesh? Where is the profit in that? Market principles reside in the human spirit, but these principles can not keep up with everything human actions cause.




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  40. Ben Wolf. Nope. Not my issue really. I don’t accept your premise. Isn’t that clear?




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  41. Victor says:

    You make the exact same mistake as Malthus and every other doomsayer hence made, you extrapolate the problems but not the solutions.




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