Proving Malthus Wrong: Sustainable Agriculture in 2050

Guest Post: Dr. Robert L. Thompson is a senior fellow for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Over the past few months, we've watched as governments have been overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt, as governments across North Africa and the Middle East promised reforms, some even handing out cash to pacify angry citizens, and as demonstrations in Libya intensified into outright civil war. Although a number of issues have come to a head, one constant across countries is the rocketing prices of basic commodities, and the increasing need for more, and more efficient, food production. Fortunately, a solution is available: research-driven sustainable agriculture.

In February 2011, global food prices were the highest ever reported by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. The extreme poor - who spend over half, and sometimes as much as three-quarters - of their income on food, are the most vulnerable to these prices.

The 2008 food price spike increased the number of people going to bed hungry from 925 million to over 1 billion, and the World Bank estimates that 44 million people have been driven into poverty since June 2010 because of rising commodity prices. This, in turn, has led to widespread political instability. In 2008, food riots broke out in at least 20 countries, and one government head was deposed. We are seeing more of the same in 2010.

On top of this, the world population is projected to grow past 9 billion by 2050, forcing even more people to compete for available food supplies, potentially driving up prices further. And population growth is just one factor. As incomes and purchasing power in the developing world rise, food consumption will also increase. This is because extremely low-income people spend most of the first increments of their additional incomes on food, first to attain adequate caloric intake and then to reduce nutritional deficiencies. Their diets come to include more resource-intensive food products, such as meat, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables - unleashing rapid growth in raw agriculture commodity demand.

By 2050 the world population will have grown by the equivalent of two Chinas - one by 2025 and the other between 2025 and 2050. As incomes of the world's poorest people rise, consumption of more resource-intensive foods will increase as well. When one adds the growing demand for agricultural commodities as industrial raw materials, especially biofuels, we can easily see a scenario in which the world's farmers are asked to double their output over the next 40 years. They must do this with little, if any, more land, and less water.

Compounding this formidable challenge is the fact that there is at most 12 percent more land realistically available for agriculture, mostly located in remote areas with inferior soil quality. Furthermore, as urban populations swell, they will likely outbid farmers for use of available fresh water - suggesting that farmers may need to triple water productivity. In addition, all agro-ecosystems will shift due to global climate change, meaning additional research will be needed simply to sustain present crop yields.

So to both reduce poverty and help farmers contribute more to the global food supply, we must help farmers in low-income countries do more, with less, in places that need it most. The solution? Research, development and distribution of technologies that produce more agricultural output using less land and water.

Tools available today, including plant breeding and biotechnology, can make presently unusable soils productive and increase the genetic potential of individual crops - enhancing drought and stress tolerance, for example - while also producing gains in yields. Existing tools can also internalize plants' resistance to disease, and even improve a plant's nutritional content - meaning consumers can get more nutritional value without increasing their consumption. Furthermore, modern high-productivity agriculture minimizes farmers' impact on the environment. Failure to embrace these technologies will result in further destruction of remaining forests.

Adoption of technologies that produce more output from fewer resources has been hugely successful from an economic standpoint: prior to the price spike in 2008, there was a 150-year downward trend in the real price of food. The jury is still out on whether the long-term downward trend will resume, prices will flatten out on a new higher plateau, or they will trend upward in the future. The key is investing in research in the public and private sectors to increase agricultural productivity faster than global demand grows.

Long ago, British scholar Thomas Malthus predicted that the human population would eventually outgrow its ability to feed itself. However, Malthus has been proven wrong for more than two centuries precisely because he underestimated the power of agricultural research and technology to increase productivity faster than demand. There is no more reason for Malthus to be right in the 21st century than he was in the 19th or 20th - but only if we work to support, not impede, continued agricultural research and adoption of new technologies around the world.

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Dr. Robert L. Thompson is a senior fellow for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He previously served as the Gardner Endowed Chair in Agricultural Policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dean of Agriculture at Purdue University and Director of Rural Development at the World Bank, and is a former president of the International Association of Agricultural Economists. Dr. Thompson was raised on a dairy farm in New York.

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I dunno that one can say Malthus has been proven wrong for 200+ years, just that thankfully his predictions (or indeed observations of times prior) haven't played out yet in a widescale manner in the timeframe we're looking at.

Infact - a quick perusal of Malthusian theory shows that only when caricatured does it necessarily follow that disaster must ensue - increasing agricultural productivity in a response to a growing population is actually in perfect alignment with Malthusian theory - and the end point isn't necessarily starvation and death for all - Malthus also included what I believe is also a goal for anyone advocating increased productivity - reduction in birth rates - the alternative is increase in death through war, famine and disease - odd that we focus on this straw man Malthus when infact we're attempting to fulfill Malthusian predictions following the more bearable path.

If we don't advocate and persue both increases in productivity to meet the short term threat of Malthusian population collapse through starvation and decreases in birth rates to ensure a reduction or levelling off of population (again Malthusian) then we are almost as well off (or our kids are) simply not doing a damn thing.

I agree with Ewan; it is misleading to say that Malthus' central point has repeatedly been proven wrong. On the contrary, everything in the post reinforces the basic principles pointed out by Malthus: population is growing almost exponentially, and resources are limited. Yes, Malthus misjudged our capacity for technological innovation, but the basic resources are still limited, and there will come a time when this limit (whatever it might be) will impose strong constraints on population growth.

Malthus' best chance to be wrong is in his prediction of exponential population growth. Population increase may level off for non-food-related reasons, such as an increase in higher education for women (proven to reduce birth rates and poverty) and the decreasing influence of superstition (many Christian and Muslim sects, for example, forbid birth control or otherwise encourage high fertility).

It is also certain that new technological advances will raise the limits of food production. Nevertheless, at any given moment, there is a de facto limit to production. In recent times, the earth's food production appears to be increasing much more slowly than an exponential curve, even though demand is increasing (as pointed out by the post). If food production cannot increase exponentially, then Malthus wins.

Obviously it is important to work on both arms of the Malthusian vise: increase production and decrease population growth. But advances in these fields do not prove Malthus wrong: exponential population growth + limited resources => disaster. We can only escape disaster by falsifying one or both of the premises; the argument itself is sound.

Also, for much the time since Malthus wrote, expansion of food supply was driven by expansion of lands used for agriculture: especially the plains of North and South America. Settling those areas for farming and ranching produced huge surpluses.

It's also far from clear that new technologies will increase yields any further, and high-yield crops require intensive application of synthetic fertilizer.

An issue that needs to be addressed that would increase available food is waste: we just throw away a lot of edible food.

But increasing yields and reducing waste just pushes the problem off to the next generation, since people will still tend to breed up to the limits of available resources.

Modern scientific hubris always seeks to prove someone wrong. It's a well-proven form of brutishness that enables PhDs to fight without actually coming to blows.

Proving Malthus wrong and doing so arguing for biotechnology inputs? So much for longevity and empirical study, when the biotech cheerleaders have not yet come to terms with year 4 drops in GM yield plus the accumulation of gm-toxins in water, soils and tissue. All that matters is the drumbeat of feeding the world, which is all the justification they need to throw more dirt on an already dead colleague. PhDs fighting one another is dirty, dirty game.

Dr. Thompson is right to say that "Malthus has been proven wrong for more than two centuries." Contra Malthus, food production has increased faster than population during those many years. It is an astonishing achievement that humans today -- despite their vastly increased numbers -- are eating better than in Malthus's time (that is to say that the average human today consumes more calories per day). We can argue about the nutritional value of those calories, but not the basic fact. Malthus was also wrong when he predicted that increased food availability would lead to faster population growth (the opposite is occurring, with populations in most-developed nations with the greatest access to food achieving the lowest birth rates). According to the UN's best estimates, global population will level off later in this century. Clearly there are inevitable limits to global carrying capacity for feeding human populations, and we are flirting with them now. The answer, however, as Dr. Thomas correctly notes, is not to look to Malthus for guidance, but to apply the most innovative and efficient technologies to food production, increasing production while decreasing waste and pollution.

Thomas, you wrote: "Clearly there are inevitable limits to global carrying capacity for feeding human populations, and we are flirting with them now." This was Malthus' main point.

You also wrote "The answer, however, as Dr. Thomas correctly notes, is not to look to Malthus for guidance, but to apply the most innovative and efficient technologies to food production, increasing production while decreasing waste and pollution." I do not understand this sentence. Your "answer" follows from Malthus' guidance. As does another solution which should be pursued simultaneously -- lower population growth rate.

Interestingly a look at FAO food production stats and global population shows that for the period between 1960 and 2000 (using 60,80 and 00 as reference points global population grew faster than food production - I was about to use this as an arguement against Thomas Hager (albeit a pretty back of the envelope one) until I decided to add the most recent available FAO data to the cards - in the period 2000-2008 food production (or a proxy thereof - the top 16 on the FAO list (ie the ones which repeat across all years) increased at a higher pace than global population - the main caveat being that most of this increase was driven by massive increases in sugar cane production, and to a lesser extent Maize - all other foods in the big 16 retained pretty linear growth rates across the 48 year period.

This Maize/Sugarcane thing is in and of itself a concern I would think - Sugarcane accounted for 1.7Bn MT of production in 2008, Maize 826M MT (according to the FAO numbers anyway!) - we may not be able to produce enough food to feed folk, but we can certainly keep the coke flowing.

The maize increase may be for biofuels and chemicals, so perhaps should not count as food production. Not sure about sugarcane.

The production of food for biofuels is potentially quite a serious problem for the world's poor, and one not easily solved by better food-growing technology. As long as the developed world is able to pay more for maize (or soya, or other foods) as a biofuel than poor people are able to pay for maize to eat, even increased production of these crops will not solve the world's food problems. Malthus did not foresee this extra twist; the world is in even more trouble than he thought.

Arguably any increases in production in the US etc will not find their way to the global poor - market economics pretty much dictates this - farmers won't grow what isn't profitable - anything which is profitable in the US is going to cost too much to feed the poor - advances need to be made in productivity in situ rather than ex situ for developing nations to alleviate - although looking at food production in the least developed countries (alas I can't get a population figure right now) there is at least an indication that this is increasing in an exponential fashion rather than flatlining (which is actually what I had expected)

Looking at a number of developing countries it is clear that Malthusian (ish - and I'm talking straw Maltus here rather than real Malthus) dynamics are going on - the gap between population and food production gets bigger, not smaller (Ethiopia illustrates this over 13 years, Bangladesh over 48) - its all well and good to sit on our Laurels patting ourselves on the back that in a few areas of the world which represent a diminishing percentage of the global population Malthusian worst case scenario doesn't appear imminent - but this ignores the larger picture and indeed the smaller picture when applied on a geography by geography basis - the fact that we're seeing food riots and governmental overthrow hardly points to a world where Malthus is wrong - such misery is part of the Malthusian prediction (indeed it's the wrong side of the coin - pretending there isn't even a coin in the first place seems an exercise in futility (rather than an exercise in fertility, which is something that needs to be applied both to productivity and population - although in different directions))

The global market has an asymmetrical effect on poor vs rich countries. Poor people generally have to rely on locally produced food, because costs of transport from elsewhere are prohibitively high. However, rich people do not. So local producers in poor countries can export soy and other things to the rich countries, for fuel or food. This means increased food production in third world countries does not necessarily get passed on to the local people.
Looks like predicting what will happen in the future might get really complicated because of these effects. But there doesn't seem to be much room for the giddy optimism of those who say that we don't need to think about Malthus' observation.

This article proves Maltus was wrong in the same way an areoplane proves Newton was wrong.

As a historical observation Malthus work was correct. For most of human history population has been limited by starvation. The recent centuries in some parts of the world have been an anomaly.

When you argue whether Malthus was correct or not you have to take into account how influential his work was. The main reason we have avoided starvation is lower birth rates, made possible by contraceptives. Would contraceptives have been developed and made legal and popular without Malthus pointing out the downside to population growth? Back then more population was generally considered to be a good thing by rulers since it gave them more soldiers and cheap labor.

Malthus noted the existence of what wildlife managers call "carrying capacity." If carrying capacity of an environment is exceeded, some consumer at some trophic level will have a population crash.

Malthus did not "predict" that population would crash, nor that population growth would stop. He wrote that disaster would ensue when carrying capacity was surpassed. As we have seen dozens of times around the world in the past century, in Darfur, Biafra, Bengla Desh, China, India, various spots in the rest of Africa, and even today in the causes of the Jasmine Revolution across North Africa, Malthus was right.

Expanding carrying capacity for humans through the use of agricultural research does not show error in Malthus's work, but does demonstrate that we can hold the wolf from the door, sometimes.

Claiming Malthus was wrong needs to proceed from a determination of what he said. The popular conception is found above. In fact, he said that populations *can* increase faster than food productivity -- and that people perceiving food shortages would respond by voluntarily reducing their reproductive rate.

Now *that* is what Malthus got wrong -- people actually reproduce less when food is *plentiful*. Check out the link below:

By Eric Baumholder (not verified) on 14 May 2011 #permalink

Sure, let's just cover every last inch of the planet with farms! It's not like we'd mind sacrificing every species on earth except our vermin, parasites and livestock so that we can have thirty percent more humans, give or take a few, before the new places are phosphate-depleted too right? And we can deplete the water tables to irrigate at-maximum right?

Hell I bet you're right, if we drain the water, erode the soil, and extinguish the wildlife of every last habitable place on earth we can TOTALLY keep reproducing freely for, oh I don't know, another thirty years! This is absolutely worth it and a great plan.

No. Malthus was absolutely right. We are gonna taper off population growth one way or another, either through putting the brakes on voluntarily (supporting family planning and more protected land) or crashing into the wall involuntarily (famine, war, pestilence and death). Judging by the resource wars, starvation and plagues it seems we're picking the latter, but the least you could do is not be so happy about it.

How fast can technology be developed and deployed? There are also fundamental limitations to productivity; despite what many people would like to believe, science and technology will not always be able to work wonders to stave off problems.

Food production is not the only issue in town. For several years now there's been a lot of talk about the scarcity of some metals. The vast human population is simply putting a lot of stress on resources. While there is a lot of work being done on many fronts, this misguided notion that technology will magically appear to solve problems must be put to rest and we must prepare to deal with the consequences of the inevitable failure of science and technology to keep pace with the increasing demands for resources.

Personally I think we needs to plan for the global population to stabilize and slowly decrease over the decades. It's always an unpopular topic but the problem must be confronted. We've already had a few major glitches in the global food supply in the past 20 years; I wonder what the next glitch will be like.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 14 May 2011 #permalink

How can someone say "Malthus has been proven wrong"?? It's just that he hasn't been proven right - yet. We've been able to defer a malthusian crisis over and over again, but - in the same post where you say Malthus was wrong, you're discussing the necessity of taking action to avoid a malthusian crisis. If that isn't a tacit admission that Malthus is right, what would be?

Malthus may still be proved right.

About 30% of humans now (maybe more) are alive due to artificially fixed nitrogen. If our fertilizer industry fails, far more people will die through famine than were saved from famine by the initial invention of nitrogen fixation back in the early 20th Century.

Fixing nitrogen is a very energy intensive process, whether it's done by nitrogen-fixing plants or by chemical plants. The current nitrogen-fixation industry is entirely dependent on fossil fuels. If we want to keep fixing nitrogen industrially, we need to come up with more efficient ways of making ammonia fast, and we need to either build nuclear power plants to power them or site them in deserts where we can use solar power.

Naive molecular biologists often want to make every crop plant nitrogen fixing through Rhizobium symbiosis. The problem is (as I noted above) that nitrogen fixation is energy intensive. Assuming you could make an N-fixing rice plant, that plant would have a smaller grain yield, due to the carbohydrates it would have to divert to feed the Rhizobium. There's a reason why this symbiosis is relatively limited in the plant kingdom.

So yes, the punchline is that our current "progress" is based on massive utilization of fossil fuels. I put "progress" in quotes because fossil fuel supplies are limited, and their side effects are demonstrably profound and difficult to deal with.

I'll make the modest proposal that it might be easier (and safer) to shrink the world population through aging out and lower birth-rates than to keep feeding new mouths. I see no evidence that we have the fundamental resources to maintain population growth at its current rates, whatever the demographers say. They're pretty bad at predicting crises, after all.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 15 May 2011 #permalink

Malthus was wrong on the assumption that the human population grows per se.
Reality is, that human females can be made to bear until they die from childbirth-related diseases; this is on average the 8th birth, therefore the geometrical progression.
BUT: no human female does that voluntarily, each will have much less, and some no children at all, if they have the power to decide.

Malthus was a scholar at a time when males (!) had first to study theology, and then only could some try to have a look at facts.
Therefore his math is and will be always correct, he was not prohibited from learning mathematics, but his outlook on the basic facts was limited by religion.

The poverty I was born into is a proof his computing was right for my taste already.

By Rune C. Olwen (not verified) on 15 May 2011 #permalink

I agree with Professor Robert Thompson. Using FAO data: from 1965 to 2008, the world population has grown 100,3%; cereals and oilseeds production went up in the same period by 160,9%, vegetables by 301,8%, fruits by 181,0%, meats by 231,4%, hen eggs by 291,5%, fish and seafood by 212,6%. Milk (not only bovine milk) went up by 90,3%. Quite bellow in terms of growth are the production of roots&tuber with 50,7% and pulses with 34,7%, which are the most basic food. Not only have we had enough food production in that period as we changed our food intake enlarging the quantity of animal products in our diet. This tendency will continue in the future. If science can perform its role we can continue to surpass Malthus with Borlaug. The problem is that food activism conducted by a minority of 1% that makes 99% of the noise wants to establish a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition and Torquemada principles. I highly reccommend that you all read an article by Jeff Simmons, "Defeating a Modern Myth to Make Safe, Affordable and Abundant Food a Global Reality"

By Osler Desouzart (not verified) on 17 May 2011 #permalink

Hey Pamela, I just want to say that even though you might have stepped in it a little bit on this one, sometimes metaphors don't fit with the content and everyone makes that mistake here and there. I still think your doing important work. So thanks.

Osler - I seem to have looked at the same data as you and come to different conclusions - particularly when graphing totals vs each other - the developing world picture looks a lot bleaker than you paint it.

I'll point out, that far from being a food activist (I'm sure any real food activist would baulk at the idea of being associated with me - for reasons about to become apparent) I just prefer a reality based approach to the situation - as a Monsanto employee being labelled a food activist is particularly unexpected.

But then nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition....

The author makes the point that research and technology can help solve the problem. Obviously that is true, but will technology allow food production to continue to increase at the same amounts that it has in the past? As we are forced to use land that is in worse condition, food production should not increase as drastically.