Future of Food: Growing Global Appetites

Monday, April 4, 2016

In 1798, British economist Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in which he argued that population grows geometrically while food supply, constrained by limited arable land, grows arithmetically. Therefore, he concluded, human population growth would eventually outstrip food supply, resulting in mass famine. “The superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population will be kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.” Uplifting, no?

Thankfully, Malthus has been proven wrong the past 217 years. At the time of Malthus’s writing, the world’s population was slightly less than one billion (there were 968 million people in the world in 1800, according to the United Nations population database). There are 7.3 billion people today and, on average, much of this population is much better fed today than people were two centuries ago, or even in 1961 for that matter, when the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations began detailed research on the subject.

Although Malthus died in 1834, his ideas have been resurrected repeatedly. American biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, and the Club of Rome’s 1972 book about its doomsday computer simulation (presumably run on punch cards and vacuum tubes), The Limits to Growth, were massive best sellers. Both predicted environmental catastrophe and mass starvation if something wasn’t done to limit population growth. Their predictions didn’t turn out any better than Malthus’s.


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