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The Malthus Moment?



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The Economist takes a look at  the world’s food supply, noting this:

The end of the era of cheap food has coincided with growing concern about the prospects of feeding the world. Around the turn of 2011-12 the global population is forecast to rise to 7 billion, stirring Malthusian fears. The price rises have once again plunged into poverty millions of people who spend more than half their income on food. The numbers of those below the poverty level of $1.25 a day, which had been falling consistently in the 1990s, rose sharply in 2007-08. That seems to suggest that the world cannot even feed its current population, let alone the 9 billion expected by 2050

True enough (and another reason to be grateful for the decline in family size across much of the planet over the past half century or so), but not new news. More interesting, perhaps, is this:

Broadbalk is no ordinary field. The first experimental crop of winter wheat was sown there in the autumn of 1843, and for the past 166 years the field, part of the Rothamsted Research station, has been the site of the longest-running continuous agricultural experiment in the world. Now different parts of the field are sown using different practices, making Broadbalk a microcosm of the state of world farming. The wheat yielding a tonne a hectare is like an African field, and for the same reason: this crop has had no fertiliser, pesticide or anything else applied to it. African farmers are sometimes thought to be somehow responsible for their low yields, but the blame lies with the technology at their disposal. Given the same technology, European and American farmers get the same results. The wheat bearing 4 or 5 tonnesa hectare is, roughly, like that of the Green Revolution, the transformation of agriculture that swept the world in the 1970s. It has been treated with herbicides and some fertilisers, but not up to the standard of the most recent agronomic practices, nor is it the highest-yielding semi-dwarf wheat variety. This is the crop of the Indian subcontinent and of Argentina.

The extraordinary results in the centre of the field are achieved by using the best plants, fertilisers, fungicides and husbandry. The yield is higher than the national average in Britain, and is as good as it gets.

But the Broadbalk field shows something else. Chart 1 tracks its yields from the start, showing how the three different kinds of wheat farming—African, Green Revolution and modern—have diverged, sometimes quite suddenly: in the 1960s with the introduction of new herbicides for Green Revolution wheat, and in the 1980s with new fungicides and semi-dwarf varieties. Worryingly, though, in the past 15 years the yields of the most productive varieties of wheat in Broadbalk have begun to level out or even fall. The fear is that Broadbalk may prove a microcosm in this respect, too.

Food (so to speak) for thought, and another useful reminder that we cannot always assume that human ingenuity will be able to come to the rescue in time.

It’s worth adding that the commenters to my post yesterday on this topic who noted that government intervention often makes such problems worse were absolutely right. It does — and the ethanol mess is just one example of that. But if this problem worsens further (and it will), governments will start to panic, particularly as they recall the contribution that higher food prices have made to the current crisis in North Africa. And if there’s one thing worse than government intervention, it’s panicked government intervention.

No, we’re not doomed. Old Thomas Malthus’ grim vision has been outpaced before, and with luck, skill, and a strong application of common sense, that trick can be repeated again. Nevertheless, attention must be paid . . .



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