Things arenít always as bad as they seem
The world is a scary place. We are bombarded with bad news: economic crises, political instability, ecological disaster, and catastrophic famines are all very real problems. What people fear is that these problems won’t be solved: the economy may implode, war may break out over competition for limited resources, and an exploding world population will cause widespread food shortages.
How plausible are these worst-case scenarios? How worried should we be about the state of world affairs? Perhaps a little, but it’s often less than you’d think. In this column, I hope to dispel some of the concerns that people get from the news and other sources. I believe that even a superficial examination of history, statistics, economics, and technology makes many of the world’s problems less worrisome than most people think.
Let’s start with the threat of food shortages in the midst of a population boom. The population of the Earth hit seven billion recently, which represents spectacular growth from 1900, when the world’s population was around 1.6 billion. What’s more, the world’s population is expected to continue to grow; over nine billion people are predicted to inhabit our planet by 2050, according to the UN’s “medium” projection.
Of course, these numbers cause a lot of concern, and many environmentalists despair that the Earth cannot sustain such a high population, especially if everyone lives a Western lifestyle. Simply put, they assert that there simply isn’t enough land to feed everyone in the world unless we seriously change our diets to be more land-efficient.
However, many sources fail to take into account advances in technology and intensification that allows farmers to grow more food in less space. Corn yields per acre have quadrupled in the last 50 years in the United States, and the trend is still holding as advances are still being made in fertilizers, genetic modification, and other areas which increase yield. This trend also holds true for many other crops, as well as grain-fed animals.
In fact, despite the world population doubling between 1960 and 2000, the number of calories produced per person per day went up 23 per cent. This is also in spite of the rapid development of countries like Japan, China and India, and with it increased consumption of more land-intensive meat and dairy products. Additionally, world population growth is expected to slow in the next few decades, as more countries develop and world fertility rates drop as a consequence.
All of this evidence tells me that warnings of global food crises are likely overstated; barring a major event, food production will continue to keep or exceed the pace of population growth. It’s important to realize that people have been warning about overpopulation for centuries. It was Thomas Malthus who predicted in the early 19th century that “the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice,” meaning that human overpopulation is ultimately inevitable, and is only kept in check by events like famines.
Even in the 19th century, Malthus’ ideas were met with opposition by economists, who correctly predicted that advances in science would increase crop yields. Today, the argument still rings true. I am not an expert, and I may be wrong, but as population growth slows but crop yields continue to rise, I can only remain optimistic on the issue of overpopulation.