Let’s lay Malthus to Rest
After all that Halloween anguish about the global population reaching 7 billion, how refreshing to have an upbeat assessment of the world food situation! It comes from the retiring professor of sustainable development and food security at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Hindsights in Perspective” was the title of Rudy Rabbinge’s farewell address, and you can see a press release about it here http://www.wageningenuniversity.nl/UK/newsagenda/news/RR_UK111129.htm
“Two hundred years ago, Malthus predicted that the world would be unable to feed the growing population. The fact that he was manifestly wrong is illustrated by the current situation in which the population has increased seven-fold, but there is now more food per head available than in 1800.”
Other points from Prof. Rabbinge:
- The notion of a present or future shortage is a misunderstanding – this is not the case anywhere in the world, except in China.
- We do not need extra agricultural land in order to feed the world population in the coming decades.
- The damage caused to the environment by farming has dropped considerably.
- Ineffective policy, unequal distribution of production and poor food distribution still leads to a billion people going hungry — a disgrace that warrants a world-wide reaction.
- Science gives cause for utopian thinking with good prospects rather than anti-utopian (dystopian) defeatism; whilst naive optimism is dangerous, unfounded pessimism is discouraging and frustrating,
Back in 1967, in The Environment Game (Secker & Warburg) I visualized an implosion of food production into small, intensive operations, such that most land could be restored to nature. This is a theme at Wageningen too:
Rabbinge refers to the energy-producing greenhouse (which could be operational in the coming years), energy-neutral buildings, and small-scale power generation by means of bio-solar cells. If agricultural production is concentrated at the well-endowed locations, geared up to high production, the world will be in a position both to sustain agro-biodiversity (the combination of natural disease control and biological control mechanisms in the fields) and to release areas of agricultural land for nature. This will require more energy per unit of area but less per unit of product.
Postscript: Prof. Rabbinge feels more affinity with the Malthus’s French contemporary, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet, who believed in dramatic change thanks to man´s ingenuity. You can see the Marquis de Condorcet’s book on Progress (1795, trs into English 1796) here http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1669&Itemid=27#toc_list Before getting too zealously utopian, please remember that Condorcet was a prominent supporter of the French Revolution but then died as one of its many victims. Failures are due to politics, not science and technology.
For earlier posts about Malthusian errors see: http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/the-population-bomb/ and http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/malthus-with-a-computer/