PRI Review

The Myth of World Food Shortages

The place of Thomas Malthus in popular thought and language comes from his insistence that unchecked human populations would increase geometrically, while the available food Supply Could only increase arithmetically. The Malthusian threat that population growth supposedly presented to the world’s food supplies was the dominant focus for nearly all of the first three decades of the post-War overpopulation panic. Although, since the 1980s, this threat has been overtaken by — and often dissolved into — concerns about the dangers to the environment, it still remains a significant theme.1

Famine Myths

In 1948, in an article on “the world population crisis”, Albert Brandt and James Payne told the readers of the American Mercury that “even allowing for spectacular advances in agriculture and industry, the earth simply could not support 4.4 billion people in the year 2048. There would be the constant threat of famine, pandemic disease and unthinkably vicious wars for survival”.2 The 1967 book by William and Paul Paddock, Famine — 1975, claimed that the food situation in countries such as Haiti, Egypt and India was so critical that they could not be saved. It suggested that a triage system would have to be introduced, allowing the least fit to starve so that the more robust could be saved.3 Paul Ehrlich began his 1968 book The Population Bomb with the notorious statement, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over” and warned that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death during the 1970s and 1980s.4

The spectacular failure of these predictions to eventuate — as exemplified, for instance, by the emergence of India as a significant food exporter5 — does not seem to have diminished the credibility of those who made them.

While meteorological, political or economic factors will inevitably cause fluctuations over certain periods of time, there can be no question about the long-term trends in rising food production and falling food prices over the last half century. Writing in 1995, and utilising Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Resources Institute data from the early 1990s, Dennis Avery noted that per capita grain supplies had increased 24 per cent since 1950, while food prices had dropped by 57 percent since 1980.6 Some of the really spectacular gains have occurred in large Asian countries once thought to be basket cases. The total level of per capita food production in Asia rose by 21 per cent between 1978 and 1990.7 These gains have continued during the 1990s.

Flawed Premises

While there are no doubts that food production has greatly outstripped population growth since 1950,8 there are arguments about the number of people who are undernourished. The FAO estimated that there were around 580 million underfed people in 1989/90, while the current figure is well over 800 million, suggesting that the problem has worsened. And there are a number of statements from organisations such as the World Food Council which explicitly support such a conclusion.9 As Nicholas Eberstadt has argued, however, the methodology of the research on which these estimates is based is deeply flawed, depending on highly questionable assumptions about individual nutritional requirements and the correspondence between food supplies on a national level and individual food consumption. Furthermore, he also notes that the FAO’s “definition of the caloric threshold level for undernutrition has been steadily climbing over time”.10 Eberstadt points out that while “a precise and reliable method for estimating the incidence and severity of worldwide malnutrition has yet to be devised”, the dramatic increase in life expectancies across the less developed world between the early 1950s and early 1990s (with an average increase of almost 15 years) is very difficult to reconcile with a situation of increasing hunger.11

Insofar as daily per capita calorie requirements can be utilised, they do not lend support to arguments that malnutrition results from overpopulation. Of the nineteen countries where the average daily calorie supply was 90 percent or less of the requirements, twelve have a population density which is less than the world average, which is currently around 44 persons per square kilometer.12 Only four of these nineteen countries can be called densely populated, Bangladesh with 836 persons per square kilometre (1995), Rwanda with 302, Haiti with 259, and Nigeria with 121.13 On the other hand, sixteen of the twenty countries with the highest per capita daily calorie supply have a population density which is greater than the world average.14

Elegant Fantasy

One of the more fatuous arguments produced in response to the fact that many of the densely populated countries are also well fed is that this prosperity has been achieved at the cost of other parts of the world. Thus Paul and Anne Ehrlich write:

The Netherlands can support 1,031 people per square mile only because the rest of the world does not. … In short, the people of the Netherlands didn’t build their prosperity on the bounty of the Netherlands, and are not living on it now.…15

Such statements are based on a fantasy of self-sufficiency which seems to treat trade as somehow immoral. By exchanging goods or services that they produce relatively efficiently for those that they produce less efficiently — or that they cannot produce at all — nations increase the productivity of their resources and achieve a higher standard of living than would be possible without trade. Any nation or region which turned its back on external trade and attempted to meet .… all its peoples’ needs from its own production would be consigning itself to poverty.16 Indeed, as Mark Sagoff notes, the real problem that many underdeveloped nations face is that protectionist and other market-distorting measures in the developed nations reduce demand for Third World exports.17

Dwindling Food Supplies?

Acknowledging the massive growth in agricultural yields over the past four decades, doomsayers such as Lester Brown and his colleagues at the Worldwatch Institute are now suggesting that such rates are unlikely to continue into the future. They identify various constraints that will supposedly prevent substantial increases in productivity, such as limits imposed by plant physiology, shortage of water, and deterioration of soil quality through erosion. In the words of William Paddock, of Famine — 1975 fame, as far as grain yields go, “We’re running out of gas at the time we most need it”.18 But the grounds for such pessimism are no stronger than the grounds for the strikingly inaccurate predictions some of the very same people made a quarter of a century ago.

Although the rates of increase in the yields of some grains in certain countries show fluctuations and slowdowns in recent years, the overall prognosis for a continuation of the major gains of recent decades is very good. Despite indications that rice yields had begun to plateau in some East Asian countries during the 1980s, a 1993 study carried out by Donald Plucknett for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research showed that with only few exceptions, yields of the three major grains, wheat, rice and corn, had continued to increase dramatically around the world over the previous decade. The study examined per hectare crop yields, which are the most appropriate measure for assessing progress in productivity, rather than total yields, which are affected by variations in the amount of cultivated land.19

At a lecture announcing the study, Plucknett stated that:

A fascinating aspect of yield analysis is that many yield levels do not slow down as yields rise… Most countries are well below their potentially-attainable, practical yields… The general trend for most crops and countries is sustained growth, often at high and even accelerating rates of gain. The data present no environmental warning signals.20

Indeed, rather than fearing that we are at the tail end of a period of rapidly increasing agricultural productivity, it is far more likely that we are in early phases of a major technological revolution based on the genetic manipulation of plants and animals.21 A single example of the way in which current developments could bring massive benefits can be seen in work designed to produce aluminium-tolerant grains. Aluminium is a problem on 30 to 40 percent of the world’s arable lands, particularly in the tropics where acidic soils make the aluminium soluble, allowing it to be taken up by plant roots. Varieties of corn which could produce 10 tons per hectare are only able to achieve around 2 tons in affected soils.22

Warnings Exaggerated

But even ignoring the potential of biotechnology, some of the warnings about supposed constraints to increased agricultural yields are greatly exaggerated. In 1984 Lester Brown and Edward Wolf claimed that the global excess of soil erosion over soil formation was over 25 billion tons a year, and that if this continued it would be a major threat to the world’s agricultural productivity.23 In 1995, David Pimentel and his associates published a paper in Science which stated that the figure was three times higher.24 However, as an analysis by Pierre Crossen from Resources for the Future shows, “losses due to erosion and other forms of land degradation [such as salinization and soil compaction] do not pose a serious threat to the capacity of the global agricultural system to increase yields”.25

Crossen also notes that Pimentel and his associates, who are not experts on soil erosion and its effects on productivity, simply ignored more comprehensive research suggesting a far less alarming situation which had been carried out by scientists who were experts on the topic, even though they were aware of it. Analysing these other studies, Crossen calculates that from 1945 until 1990, ‘the cumulative average degradation-induced loss of global soil productivity was roughly 0.1 to 0.2 percent per year’, and that ‘there is reason to believe that in the future, losses are more likely to decrease than to increase’. This is because economic, technological and legal developments in many Third World countries are providing increasing incentives for farmers to take measures to protect their land from degradation.26

Water availability is another instance where the threats to future agricultural productivity have been exaggerated. Thus Sandra Postel, who has had a long association with Lester Brown’s Worldwatch Institute, recently wrote that ‘lack of water is already constraining agricultural output in many parts of the world’ and that ‘water availability will be a serious constraint to achieving the food requirements projected for 2025’.27 Certainly, there can be little question that there are many regions where water shortages limit agricultural productivity. But as Waggoner notes, ‘bumper crops consume only a little more water than do sparse ones’.28 And with the development of high-efficiency irrigation systems, the promise of much more efficient water purification systems, the development of more drought resistant crops, the possibilities of seawater irrigation tor agriculture in desert areas, and the growing realisation of how expanded markets for water can provide significant incentives for conservation, the effects of water constraints are more likely to weaken rather than intensify.29

Ron Brunton is an anthropologist, who writes from Queensland, Australia.


1 John R. Wilmoth and Patrick Ball, “The population debate in American popular magazines, 1946–90,” Population and Development Review 18, no. 4, 1992, 650–652. For a single recent example, see Maurice King & Charles Elliott, “Averting a world food shortage: tighten your belts for CAIRO II,” British Medical Journal, volume 313, number 7063, 19 October 1996.

2 John R. Wilmouth and Patrick Ball, “Arguments and action in the life of a social problem: a case study of ‘overpopulation,’ 1946–1990,” Social Problems 42, no. 3, August 1995.

3 William Paddock and Paul Paddock, Famine — 1975!, (London: Weidenfeld and Nocolson. 1968), 222.

4 Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, revised edition, (New York: Sierra Club/Ballantine, 1971 (1968)), xi.

5 According to the FAO in 1996 the value of food and animal exports from India was US$4.19 billion, while the value of food and animal imports was US$754 million.

6 Dennis Avery, “Saving the planet with pesticides,” in Ronald Bailey, (ed.). The True State of the Planet, (New York: Free Press, 1995), 52–53.

7 Ibid., 57. See also Nicholas Eberstadt, “Limits of statistical certainty: the case of population, food, and income,” in Bailey, (ed.).

8 “Dirt poor: a survey of development and the environment,” The Economist, 21 March 1998, 12–13.

9 Avery, “Saving the planet…” 53; Nicholas Eberstadt, “Starved for ideas: misconceptions that hinder the battle against world hunger,” Vital Speeches, volume 63, number 10, March 1, 1997; “Dirt poor…,” 13–14.

10 Eberstadt, “Starved for ideas.”

11 Ibid.

12 The area of the inhabited lands of the earth is around 134 million square kilometres and the current world population is around 5.9 billion.

13 The 19 countries whose per capita calorie supply is 90% or below daily requirements are as follows (with the caloric supply and the population density in persons per square km.): Nigeria, 90, 121; Somalia, 90, 15; Bolivia, 89, 7; Ecuador, 89, 40; Zimbabwe, 89, 29; Cameroon, 88, 28; Sudan, 88, 11; Central African Republic, 86, 5; Mali, 86, 9; Haiti, 84, 259; Bangladesh, 83, 836; Angola, 82, 9; Rwanda, 81, 302; Sierra Leone, 81, 63; Guinea, 77, 27: Ghana, 76, 73; Ethiopia, 71, 50; Chad, 69, 5; Mozambique, 69, 20. (Data from Microsoft Encarta World Atlas, 1998 edition.)

14 These 20 countries are as follows (with the population density in persons per square km.): Greece, 79; Belgium, 331; Ireland, 51; Bulgaria, 79; Italy, 190: United States, 28; Spain, 78: Argentina, 13: Cuba, 100; Hungary, 109; Mexico, 48; Egypt, 63; Denmark, 120; Austria, 95; France, 105; Canada, 3; New Zealand, 13; Portugal, 106; Switzerland, 174; United Kingdom, 239. (Data from Microsoft Encarta World Atlas, 1998 edition.)

15 Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 38.

16 See e.g. Peter T. Bauer, Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion, (Harvard University Press, 1981) 67–80; Heyne, 132; Nathan Rosenberg & L.E. Birdzell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich, (New York: Basic Books, 1986) 164-165; Roger N. Waud, Economics, (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1980) 725.

17 Mark Sagoff, “Do we consume too much?.” Atlantic Monthly, volume 279, number 6, June 1997, 92–93.

18 Charles Mann, “Reseeding the Green Revolution,” Science 227, no. 5329, 22 August 1997. See also Lester Brown, State of the World 1998, (London: Earthscan Publications,1998); Sandra L. Postel, “Water for food production: will there be enough in 2025?,” BioScience volume 48, number 8, August 1998; D. Pimentel, et al., “Environmental and economic costs of soil erosion and conservation benefits,” Science, volume 267, number 5201, 24 February 1995.

19 Bob Holmes, “A new study finds there’s life left in the green revolution,” Science, volume 261, number 5128, 17 September 1993.

20 Quoted in Avery, “Saving the planet…,” 61.

21 “Specia1 Report: living in a genetically modified world,” New Scientist, volume 160, number 2158, 31 October 1998; Philip H. Abelson, “The third technological revolution,” Science, volume 279, number 5359, 23 March 1998; Clarissa Long, “The future of biotechnology: promise and problems,” The American Enterprise, volume 9, number 5, September/October 1998.

22 Marcia Barinaga, “Making plants aluminum tolerant,” Science, volume 276, number 5318, 6 June 1997.

23 Lester R. Brown & Edward Wolf, Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis in the World Economy, Worldwatch Paper 60. Worldwatch Institute, Washington, 1984. See also Lester R. Brown. ‘The future of growth’, in Brown, State of the World 1998, 8–9.

24 D. Pimentel et al., “Environmental and Economic Costs of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits,” Science, volume 267, 24 February 1995.

25 Pierre Crosson, “Will erosion threaten agricultural productivity?,” Environment, volume 39, number 8, October 1997.

26 Ibid.

27 Postel, “Water .…”

28 Paul Waggoner, “How much land can ten billion people spare for nature?,” Deadalus 125, no. 3, 1996.

29 See e.g. Avery, “Saving the planet …,” 68–69; Jesse H. Ausubel, “Can technology spare the earth?,” American Scientist, volume 84, number 2, March-April 1996, 174-175; Edward Glenn, et al., “Irrigating crops with seawater,” Scientific American, volume 279, number 2, August 1998; Terry L. Anderson. “The market process and environmental amenities,” in Jeff Bennett & Walter Block, (eds), Reconciling Economics and the Environment, AIPP, Perth 1991, 137–142; R. Dumsday & A. Chisholm, “Land degradation: economic causes and cures,” Simon, The Ultimate Resource II, Chapter 10.

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