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Food supply vs. population: Malthus 200 years later

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“By 2050, we will not have a planet left that is recognizable” if current food trends continue, said Jason Clay at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Clay, who has taught at Yale and Harvard and worked at the USDA and is now senior vice president at the World Wildlife Fund, says a population predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050 will see more competition for increasingly scarce resources, necessitating the production of “as much food in the next 40 years as in the last 8,000 years."

 

What with all the dire warnings coming out of this year’s gathering of top scientists, it’s almost enough to make one seek out a remote cave and start stocking it with freeze-dried foods, sacks of beans, and a trunk full of survivalist tomes.

“By 2050, we will not have a planet left that is recognizable” if current food trends continue, said Jason Clay at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Clay, who has taught at Yale and Harvard and worked at the USDA and is now senior vice president at the World Wildlife Fund, says a population predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050 will see more competition for increasingly scarce resources, necessitating the production of “as much food in the next 40 years as in the last 8,000 years … More people, more money, more consumption — but the same planet.”

His key solution: “Minimize population growth … through more effective family planning.” Absent that, he says, by the end of this century world population could hit 10 billion, with life expectancy increasing to 100 years, exacerbating food problems and further straining social security systems.

Even nearer, says University of California, Los Angeles Professor Cristina Tirado, is a flood of “environmental refugees,” migrating from regions of food shortages and economic privations to developed countries. In less than 10 years, by 2020, that number could reach 50 million, she told the AAAS delegates.

These migrations are already having a significant impact on Spain, Germany, and other southern European countries that have seen huge numbers of refugees from African nations in recent years.

“We’re going to see many, many more trying to go north when food stress comes in,” says Ewen Todd, a professor at Michigan State University. The riots and protests in Tunisia, sparked by food shortages and other issues are “going to be the pattern.”

Climate change is also a factor, he says, and will increase concerns about safety of the world’s food supply as pests and diseases expand their territory and have more opportunities to enter the food chain. “Accelerating climate change is inevitable, with implications for animal products and crops.”

The Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), whose theories of population growth outpacing food supply (“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”) continue to be bandied about even today, could not have foreseen the breakthroughs in technology, genetics, and production methods that would result, 200 years later, in an unparalleled agricultural bounty.

World food production capacity is not (yet) the problem that Malthus and other gloom-and-doomers have predicted. Rather, the ongoing quandary is the distribution of that food and the ability of poorer nations to purchase and allocate it to their people — a challenge even less easily resolved in the current economic climate.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

Ken Thesing (not verified)
on Mar 8, 2011

I want to emphasize the last paragraph of Mr Brandon's article. That the most pressing problem (quandry) our world has is not yet at least the amount of food produced or available but the distribution of food and the access (economic ability to buy) of nations and especially people within nations to food. I am not against technology advances but to solve the hunger problem we must look especially at our social organization and economic inequality issues and resolve them. Put people first, not production first (without denying the importance of production).

Rick Farmer (not verified)
on Mar 11, 2011

I am a believer that we in agriculture and science can kick butt and it is not often I walk in lock step with someone from the WWF but...I don't live in Kansas where the horizons are still free of smog and people. I want to be able to take long hot showers and drive a car(selfish me). It doesn't take a genius to realize there are only so many way you can divide our limiting resources before you might as well imagine the glass as opposed to drink it or drive in it. Stop rewarding birthrates above replacement rates. Encourage efforts to slow birth rates elsewhere. Stop encouraging food production where it is not efficient. My countryside (and I know this is the left coast) already is largely overpopulated for the living standard I like and grew up with. You can't hunt and the streams are too dry or full of E. coli to fish where you used too. There are no more abalone on South Coast to speak of. While I have a child and I know its sacrilege, why do we have tax deductions for children. We don't need population growth anymore(or for the last 20 years for that matter in my opinion) and they cost money for society. Don't tell me we need more young to carry the growing old. Give us the money we and our employers invested plus a marginal rate of return and SS should be solvent if the actuarial tables are followed. Sorry for the rant

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 16, 2012

There are limited resources available on the earth. Consider that in 2050 the world population will be over 9 billion people, There 10% of the large fish left in the ocean. Do we really want to keep hoping technology will save us? Is that like betting on Social Security for your retirement?

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