Speaking of the Population Reference Bureau, the February 1997 Population Bulletin, “Population, Food, and Nutrition” addressed the central question of whether or not there will be enough food to feed the world’s population as it climbs to 10 billion people by the middle of the next century.
It is difficult to summarize a 47-page article, but by and large the authors, William Bender and Margaret Smith, provide evidence which backs up the claims the Overpopulation FAQ makes. First, Smith and Bender agree that today the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone — that people go malnourished is largely a political problem and not an agricultural one.
Second, although it is by no means assured, given the right incentives agriculture should be able to expand to feed the projected increase in population. As Bender and Smith note, “How much can yields increase? It seems logical that there is an upper limit to the amount of food crops that can be grown on a hectare of land. However, the experience of the past 30 years suggests that most countries are still far below that limit. In fact, countries with the highest starting yields have generally shown the fastest absolute increase in ultimate yields” (19). How far below their possible production are some areas? According to Bender and Smith, Africa and South America currently produce less than 1 percent of their potential agricultural harvest (25).
Furthermore Smith and Bender argue that claims by groups such as The Worldwatch Institute that crop yields are declining ignores what is really happening. Smith and Bender write, “This trend [a decrease in per capita grain production since 1984] at first appears an alarming sign that we will lack enough grain to feed our growing population, but it most likely reflects the growing statistical weight of the developing countries. Faster population growth in developing countries increased their share of world population from about 77 percent to 80 percent between 1984 and 1996. This shift pushed worldwide per capita grain production averages down toward the developing-country levels” (24).
Finally, Smith and Bender note the effect that perverse economic incentives set by governments in the Third World have on food production there. “In much of Africa, in contrast, urban populations command the attention of the government and benefit from food sold below its true value in urban markets. When food is sold below fair market value, the rural smallholders who produce the food are denied a fair return on their investments and are subsequently unwilling to invest in inputs that would increase their yields” (42).
In a small blurb in the July 1997 issue of Discover, demographer Wolfgang Lutz
confirmed the main thesis of the Overpopulation FAQ — the doomsday population
scenarios arent going to happen.
“I dont believe in a global doomsday scenario,” said Lutz,
who is a demographer at the International
Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and editor of the IIASAs recent
Future of World Population.” The IIASA is a highly respected group
which has been involved in the creation of the often-cited United Nations models
predicting future world population.
Unlike population doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich, Lutz assembled a panel of
20 experts in areas such as fertility, mortality, population migration to examine
past scenarios of population growth and create a new model. The result? The
most likely scenario produced by the group forecasts world population growing
to 10.6 billion by 2050 and then declining in the latter half of the 21st and
beginning of the 22nd century.
Continuing declines in fertility levels around the world, increased urbanization,
and an increase in educational opportunities for women are just some of the
factors which Lutz and the panel believe will bring fertility rates to replacement
level by 2050.
Of course the world is running out of oil and the entire fossil fuel economy
is on borrowed time, which makes me wonder why theres still so damn much
of the stuff around. A July 8 story by Reuters Information Service reported
that even with a rise in U.S. demand for oil, crude prices declined dramatically
this spring and are expected to fall even further when Iraq resumes exporting
The International Energy Agency
reported that its revised forecast of 1997 world oil demand was 73.8 million
barrels per day. At the same time world oil inventories rose an estimated 1.6
million barrels per day in the second quarter of 1997. The Washington-based
Petroleum Finance Company said, … crude production will outstrip demand
by an average of one million bpd in 1997.
The result was predictable — crude oil futures have fallen 30 percent in 1997,
hitting a low of $17.32 in mid-June.
North Korea is on the verge of famine. According to the United Nations up
to 4.7 million people are at risk of starvation this summer unless North Korea
gets massive food assistance.
Why are so
many North Koreans so close to starving? The pat answer is that floods of agricultural
regions in 1995 and 1996 hurt agricultural production. A better answer is that
North Koreas repressive, backward system of government prevents people
from adapting to changing conditions.
Starvation in the 20th century has almost exclusively been caused by actions
taken by governments, and North Koreas situation is no different. Since
the early 1960s North Koreas has followed an ideology of chuche
— a combination of self-reliance and autarky that has proved stifling to North
Combined with a military and industrial policy designed to shift workers toward
industry and away from agriculture, the North Korean government has done everything
in its power to ensure that any floods or drought will be followed quickly by
widespread famine. North Korea is one of the few places in the world which still
attempts collectivized agriculture and now it is paying the price.
The emphasis on industry hasnt gotten North Korea very far either. Although
some observers note that North Koreas economy has grown quite a lot since
the early 1960s, they fail to note the growth is largely explained by increases
in inputs such as labor and raw materials rather than improvements in efficiencies
and productivity. As a result, North Koreas exports are extremely low
and North Korea is unable to use trade to make up for any food shortages.
The lessons of 20th century famines are clear — excessive state intervention
in the economy in general and the agricultural sector in particular can have
I know, I know — Paul Ehrlich said the Green Revolution was a failure in
the late 1960s and that settles it, but a diverse group of scientists recently
told the European Commission that they can continue to improve crops to increase
yields and reduce the environmental impacts of human agriculture.
A July 10 Reuters Information Service report noted that 130 laboratories which
took part in a European Commission project in 1993 reported on their diverse
efforts to improve crops through genetic engineering.
Brian Forde of the Institute of Arable Crop Research used his grant to create
plants that need less fertilizer. Forde says his team has isolated a gene that
controls the important process of nitrate uptakes from soil. Fordes goal
is to make the plant even more efficient at nitrate uptake.
Michel Cobech and others at Frances National Institute for Agricultural
Research are conducting similar research on aspergillus, a common fungus.
Others reported success in finding genes that help plants live in saltier conditions
or in the presence of drought conditions.
Imagine that — crops which produce more, use less fertilizer and more resistant
to inclement environmental conditions. Dont get your hopes up too high,
though, because remember — Ehrlich said it was impossible in the 1960s and
that settles it.
In its seemingly unending quest to ridicule even the very idea of human progress
in our century, the United Nations World Health Organization has discovered
a new threat — people the world over are living too long.
Despite horror stories and doomsday predictions, human beings
are living far longer today than at any time in history and as Western technology
and lifestyles spread over the globe even more people will enjoy long lives.
And theres the rub — people are living longer, but are they living happier
Not according to WHO. According to the World
Health Report 1997. Longer life can be a penalty as well as a prize. A large
part of the price to be paid is in the currency of chronic disease.
You heard it from the United Nations first — if you save a 3-year-old
from dying of dysentery, you condemn him to dying of a heart attack or cancer
in his 50s or 60s. People who dont die from malaria when theyre
7 might develop diabetes when theyre 40. Oh the horrors of it all.
Apparently until theyve found a cure for death, Western
nations should simply stop tampering with nature! Better to let people perish
as infants than subject them to living into their 60s.