2 November 2016

Don’t fear the population explosion – human ingenuity will feed us all

By Chelsea Follett and Tirzah Duren

Tom Hanks – of all people  – was recently discussing overpopulation on NBC’s Today show. He was doing it to promote his upcoming movie, Inferno, which is all about an overpopulation crisis. The actor claimed that we will have too many people “in an instant” and that the planet will be unable to support them. This is not a new idea. It dates back to the late 1700s, when Thomas Robert Malthus feared that large population would exhaust Earth’s resources and result in mass poverty and starvation.

Mr Hanks is not the first to echo his concerns. Hollywood has a long history of making dystopian movies painting a gloomy portrait of humanity’s future and Malthusianism even remains popular among some university professors. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, fears that “we might yet confirm the Malthusian curse”.

Yet in over 200 years, Malthus’ fears have not come to pass. We are not facing species-wide starvation: human innovation has brought hunger and poverty to record-lows and food production has climbed to new highs, as farmers have found new ways to produce ever more food per hectare of land.

yeilds

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the amount of land dedicated to agriculture globally has remained roughly stable from the early 1990s – approximately when the previous trend of expansion of agricultural land came to an end. In fact, since the turn of the new millennium, use of land for agriculture has fallen slightly. Around 26 million fewer hectares of land were farmed in 2013 than in 2000. Even so, this reduction occurred alongside a dramatic decrease in world hunger. We were able to reduce hunger because agricultural productivity increased.

agarea

Agricultural productivity has rapidly improved through the efforts of ordinary people engaged in innovation and exchange. It was an Iowan called Norman Borlaug who pioneered the development of hybrid crops through selective cross-breeding of plants, which enhanced certain desired traits. In the case of wheat, for example, he was able to create plants with shorter stalks. Less energy wasted on growing tall stalks meant more energy for growing the edible portion of the wheat. This technology helped to increase global grain output by an incredible 170 per cent between 1950 and 1992.

Even Professor Sachs acknowledges that if “technology enables us to economise on natural capital”, then we can avert a Malthusian disaster. Hearteningly, technology is helping us to do precisely that.

Not all academics are as pessimistic as Professor Sachs. There is a growing movement of “ecomodernists”, who believe that human ingenuity can help the planet. The New York Times admitted last year that the Earth is not facing a problem of overpopulation.

Environmental scientist and HumanProgress.org advisory board member Jesse Ausubel, who helped set up the world’s first climate change conference in Geneva in 1979, believes that agricultural landuse will start to radically shrink.

He has argued that if we “keep lifting average yields, stop feeding corn to cars, restrain our diets lightly, and reduce waste, then an area the size of India or the USA east of the Mississippi could be released from agriculture over the next 50 years or so”. And by freeing up land, we can allow nature to rebound.

More innovation doesn’t just reduce land use, it can also prevent other kinds of environmental depletion as well. As shown below, agricultural water use in OECD countries, global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and American energy use for agriculture, have all either decreased or remained stable while food production has been increased.

water

greenhouse

energymaterials

Modern agriculture has married farming and technology to meet the nutritional demands of a growing population while limiting the environmental impact of doing so.

Even with a global population projected by some to reach over 11 billion by 2100 (which may be too high, given that population growth is now falling even in developing areas), there is still no need for alarm. Recent trends in agricultural development show that humanity can find ways of eliminating hunger, while limiting negative environmental impacts.

So the next time you hear a celebrity bemoaning overpopulation or watch a dystopian movie like Inferno, just remember: Malthus’ fearmongering doesn’t stand a chance against human ingenuity.

Chelsea Follett, managing editor of HumanProgress.org and Tirzah Duren, graduate student focusing on global food policy.