Cyril Dill writes from London: Want to know how the world will end? You could have gone to the Royal Court Theatre and listened to Stephen Emmott, Professor of Computational Science at the University of Oxford, who dwelt on the subject. But as he ended his four week run on August 12, you’d better keep on reading to find out what he said on the subject.
You may have heard of the Reverend Thomas Malthus who was so alarmed by the increasing population of his day that he penned a famous tract: An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). His main point was that the poor were having too many babies. If this continued, he reckoned, the planet would run out of food. Well, there were only nine hundred million humans on the planet then. Now there are about 7 billion. This is expected to rise to 10 billion by mid-century. So was the learned Reverend talking through his hat or was he on to something? The debate has raged ever since.
Optimists say that man’s ingenuity when it comes to sourcing more food is boundless. Look at the impact of science on agriculture. All advances in crop yields, hybrids, animal husbandry and so on have their roots in scientific discoveries. The progress in agricultural machinery has to be marvelled at. Perhaps Malthus can be forgiven for not predicting this since he was writing before the scientific and technical revolution of the 19th century. Without those innovations he would probably have been right. So science and technology will be our saviour in the years to come. Mind you, the irrational opposition to GM foods might lead one to doubt this. Rice yields have rocketed and the population of India is now over 1.2 billion. Rice is also a staple in China. How did they solve their population problem? In China about 90 per cent of the population live on 10 per cent of the land. Well, they’ve introduced the one child policy. It has dramatically reduced population increase to about 20 million a year. Now there’s enough food for everyone. China has leased land in Russia, Sudan, Ethiopia, other African countries and Latin America to feed its growing population.
Pessimists, including the good Professor Emmott, believe that population is growing faster than our ability to increase food production. The land available for agricultural crops is shrinking, notably in China. It costs money to produce food. It only makes sense to increase food production if there is a market for it. This means that people must have enough money to buy it. What happens when they find that food prices have risen beyond their reach? Hunger. And hunger fuels conflict which can lead to revolution. This year’s wheat and maize crops in the United States will be much lower than normal because of drought. This results in bread, cake, meat, chicken and so on becoming more expensive. Expect trouble in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East and Africa next spring as higher food prices kick in.
A major problem in the developed world is obesity. So if you are overweight, do your bit for the planet by consuming less. Less food need be imported from the developing world. They can consume it themselves. The only fly in the ointment is that those who are short of food are too poor to buy what they need. So what should the world do? Set up a world food bank and transfer food to every needy person? Food surpluses in the European Union can be put into it. The problem here is that a hungry country has no incentive to innovate and produce more for its citizens. They become part of the dependency culture. Oh, dear, just when I thought I had solved the world’s food problem it turns out to be a chimera.
No one knows if the world will descend into chaos in mid century as food wars break out. Some people think the next war will be over water resources. But it might be so that it will be about food.