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Food supply vs. population: Malthus 200 years later


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.

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