I Am So Tired of Malthus
Daily we are deluged with gloom about how we are overwhelming the Earth’s ability to sustain and support our growing numbers. Increasing population is again being hailed as the catastrophe of the century. In addition, floods and droughts are said to be leading to widespread crop loss. The erosion of topsoil is claimed to be affecting production. It is said that we are overdrawing our resources, with more people going hungry. Paul Ehrlich and the late Stephen Schneider assure us that we are way past the tipping point, that widespread starvation is unavoidable.
Is this true? Is increasing hunger inevitable for our future? Are we really going downhill? Are climate changes (natural or anthropogenic) making things worse for the poorest of the poor? Are we running out of food? Is this what we have to face?
Fortunately, we have real data regarding this question. The marvelous online resource, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics database called FAOSTAT, has data on the amount of food that people have to eat.
Per capita (average per person) food consumption is a good measure of the welfare of a group of people because it is a broad-based indicator. Some kinds of measurements can be greatly skewed by a few outliers. Per capita wealth is an example. Since one person can be a million times wealthier than another person, per capita wealth can be distorted by a few wealthy individuals.
But no one can eat a million breakfasts per day. If the per capita food consumption goes up, it must perforce represent a broad-based change in the food consumption of a majority of the population. This makes it a good measure for our purposes.
The FAOSTAT database gives values for total food consumption in calories per day, as well as for protein and fat consumption in grams per day. (Fat in excess is justly maligned in the Western diet, but it is a vital component of a balanced diet, and an important dietary indicator.) Here is the change over the last fifty years:
Figure 2. Consumption of calories, protein, and fat as a global average (thin lines), and for the “LDCs”, the Least Developed Countries (thick lines) . See Appendix 1 for a list of LDCs.
To me, that simple chart represents an amazing accomplishment. What makes it amazing is that from 1960 to 2000, the world population doubled. It went from three billion to six billion. Simply to stay even, we needed to double production of all foodstuffs. We did that, we doubled global production, and more. The population in the LDCs grew even faster, it has more than tripled since 1961. But their food consumption stayed at least even until the early 1990s. And since then, food consumption has improved across the board for the LDCs.
Here’s the bad news for the doomsayers. At this moment in history, humans are better fed than at any time in the past. Ever. The rich are better fed. The middle class is better fed. The poor, and even the poorest of the poor are better fed than ever in history.
Yes, there’s still a heap of work left to do. Yes, there remain lots of real issues out there.
But while we are fighting the good fight, let’s remember that we are better fed than we have ever been, and take credit for an amazing feat. We have doubled the population and more, and yet we are better fed than ever. And in the process, we have proven, once and for all, that Malthus, Ehrlich, and their ilk were and are wrong. A larger population doesn’t necessarily mean less to eat.
Of course despite being proven wrong for the nth time, it won’t be the last we hear of the ineluctable Señor Malthus. He’s like your basic horror film villain, incapable of being killed even with a stake through the heart at a crossroads at midnight … or the last we hear of Paul Ehrlich, for that matter. He’s never been right yet, so why should he snap his unbeaten string?
APPENDIX 1: Least Developed Countries
Africa (33 countries)
Central African Republic
Democratic Republic of the Congo
São Tomé and Príncipe
Eurasia (10 countries)
Americas (1 country)
Oceania (5 countries)