Malthus’s ghost

ForeignPolicy.com is running a list of predictions that didn’t come true, including free atomic energy for all, global cooling, Japan ruling the world, another 9/11, and too many people on earth. What actually happened on the last of these, they ask?

Birthrates leveled off, food production drastically expanded, and technology improved. The 6.5 billion people alive today are far more than most imagined could possibly be supported a few decades ago. Limited resources and widespread poverty remain challenges for billions, but in nothing like the apocalyptic form that the alarmists predicted. The United Nations now predicts that the world’s population will level off at 9 billion by 2300.

Well, birthrates may have levelled off relatively, but global population certainly ain’t level just yet. (Might be an idea to check those figures, too – the UN’s prediction is actually 9 billion people by 2045, not 2300.) But more generally, here are a few reasons why reports of Malthus’s demise – well, his reputation’s demise, at any rate – may be premature:

  • It’s true that global food output is close to record levels – the 2004 grain crop, for instance, was an all time high of 2.049 billion tons. But in per capita terms, the 2004 total was 322 kg per person: that’s 6 per cent below the 1985 peak of 343 kg. In other words, while food output has been growing, population has been growing faster.
  • As well as more mouths to feed in total, there’s also the factor of higher demand from rising affluence in some countries – especially with consumption levels soaring in emerging economies like China and India. A major part of the issue here is the global middle class’s pronounced taste for meat, which is much more resource intensive than eating grain directly, in terms of water, energy and grain used to feed livestock.
  • Now consider water scarcity. Global demand for fresh water has tripled in the last fifty years; by 2050, more than 4 billion people will live in areas chronically short of water. And much of today’s water supply is being ‘mined’ unsustainably from groundwater reserves like aquifers. According to the International Water Management Institute,

“Many of the most populous countries in the world have been literally having a free ride over the past two or three decades by depleting their groundwater resources. The penalty for mismanagement of this valuable resource is now coming due and it is no exaggeration to say that the results could be catastrophic for these countries and, given their importance, for the world as a whole.”

  • Next consider climate change. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that some regions will enjoy higher crop yields in the nearer term, the long term global implications of climate change for crop yields are strongly negative. 2006 wheat harvests in areas as diverse as Australia, Argentina, Europe and North America have all been affected by droughts and heatwaves; Australia’s drought has been so severe that yields were 55 per cent lower than the previous year.
  • Next is energy security. While the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s achieved giant strides through the use of new crop varieties, an arguably even more essential element of its productivity increases was the increased use of fossil fuels, in all stages of the food cycle. Fossil fuels are used to make the fertilisers and pesticides; to till the land; to move food to market (often on the other side of the world); to process it; to distribute it; to refrigerate it; and to cook it. In a world of much higher oil prices (and as the International Energy Agency‘s last energy outlook showed, you don’t have to believe in an early oil peak to be worried about that), higher food prices will follow in short order.
  • And finally, consider our old friend, the biofuels issue (see previous posts here and here). As Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has put it pithily:

“Since virtually everything we eat can be converted into automotive fuel either in ethanol distilleries or biodiese refineries, high oil prices are opening a vast new market for farm products. Those buying commodities for fuel producers are competing directly with food processors for supplies of wheat, corn, soybeans, sugarcane and other foodstuffs. In effect, supermarkets and service stations are competing for the same commodities…”

Above all, the problem is how these and other scarcity trends reinforce one another – see this table for examples. All in all, policy planners ought to be thinking much more than they currently are about global food security issues. So far, though, the international system shows nothing like the level of inter-agency and inter-governmental coherence needed to manage such a complex and multi-faceted problem. It’s too soon to write off Malthus just yet.