Nearly a billion people will go to bed hungry tonight, and if we can’t feed the current population, how will we manage with half as many again by 2050, especially if their diets shift towards resource-intensive Western-style foods? Climate change will complicate matters further, with the worst impacts likely to be on the regions the least well-equipped to deal with them. Moreover, agriculture could find itself in competition for land with biofuels and other non-food uses, notably urbanisation.
Such worries are not new. Ever since Malthus published his famous essays on demography at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries, there have been predictions that the world will face mass starvation if things go on as expected. As Malthus himself put it in his 1798 work An Essay on the principle of population: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
Likewise, there have been critics of Malthusianism from the outset. Marx for instance argued that Malthus did not discover any kind of natural law of population, but was simply describing, extremely badly in Marx’s view, a particular moment in socioeconomic development. (In fact Marx dismissed the essay as “nothing more than a schoolboyish, superficial plagiary… [that] does not contain a single sentence thought out by Malthus himself”).
Malthus was also criticised for underestimating the potential for positive change, through scientific and technological innovation for example. The rate of progress in agricultural output over the past few decades has been phenomenal, even for long-established crops. Take wheat for instance. Farm records in England show that yields increased from around half a tonne a hectare before the year 1000 to 2 tonnes a thousand years later. To increase from 2 to 6 tonnes took only forty years. It would have been impossible to achieve this with the old ways of doing things, where to increase production, you increased the area under cultivation and pasture, either by expanding onto second-choice land or by conquering new territories.
If nothing had changed, Malthus would have been proved right as soon as the physical possibilities of extending production were reached. The answer was intensification, meaning producing much more from a given amount of land or number of animals. The global area under crops grew by about 12% over 1960 to 2000, but cereal production increased by over 100%, oil crops by over 300% and fruit and vegetables by over 200%.
Meat production shows a similar pattern. Permanent pastureland increased by 10% over this forty-year period, but bovine meat production grew by 90% and that of pigmeat by 240%. The increase in poultry production was even more spectacular, at over 650% in 1960-2000.
This increased production was made possible by scientific advances in the “inputs” farmers use – seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. and by new ways of breeding and caring for animals, and organising production, storage and distribution of agricultural produce.
Food production has not only kept pace with population growth, it has outstripped it. The world now produces more food than ever, and even countries that were once practically synonymous with famine have achieved self-sufficiency in staple foods. As we argued in this post, hunger is a problem of poverty, not scarcity.
Will that be the case over the coming decades? The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012-2021 released today points out that agricultural production needs to increase by 60% over the next 40 years to meet rising food demand. That means an additional billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million more tonnes of meat a year by 2050 compared with 5 years ago levels, and that’s not including biofuel feedstock. Globally, the scope for expanding agricultural land is limited. Total arable land is projected to increase by less than 5% by 2050, so additional production will need to come from increased productivity, as it has for the past 50 years.
At the same time, the sustainable use of available land, water, marine ecosystems, fish stocks, forests, and biodiversity has to be improved. Around 25% of all agricultural land is highly degraded. Critical water scarcity is a fact for many countries, and as we said yesterday, 85% of ocean fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited or depleted.
The Outlook seems cautiously optimistic that “increasing productivity and improving sustainability of agriculture are not mutually exclusive” with the right mix of policies and practices. Actual yields for the main food crops are well below what could be achieved in many regions, with yield gaps in many developing countries of over 50% in 2005, and 76% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although annual growth in global agricultural production over the next ten years will be lower than the previous ten years, it should remain ahead of population growth, and output per capita will continue to increase at the global level.