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July 2008

Why concern with
overpopulation is wrong

As food prices rise, Malthusianism rears its ugly head again

Paul Tuns

Editor’s Note: This essay is less about the intellectual and political underpinnings of population control than refuting the basic argument for worrying about population growth and population density. Employing history and economics, Interim editor Paul Tuns examines how Thomas Malthus and his modern followers are wrong to predict population growth will outpace the planet’s capacity to feed its people.

Rising food prices

A trip to the grocery store confirms what one reads in the daily paper: food prices are rising dramatically. While Canadian consumers were insulated from the price increases for some time due to the strong dollar and our own agricultural production, in a globalized market, such protections will not last forever. Bread has jumped anywhere between a dime and a quarter per loaf, the cost of milk has increased nearly 5 per cent and bags of rice have jumped 10-20 per cent.

Yet, food inflation in Canada is lower than elsewhere. According to Statistics Canada, consumer prices for food rose 1.2 per cent from April 2007 to April 2008. Grocery bills in Europe rose 7.1 per cent over the same period and 5.9 per cent in the United States. In the developing world, increases have been even steeper – 40 per cent in Afghanistan and 22 per cent in China. Rising food prices have been devastating to the developing world’s poor, who typically spend a quarter to half their income on subsistence food (whereas Canadians typically spend less than 10 per cent of household income on food).

In recent months, newspapers and television newscasts have reported on the steeply increasing cost of food and the turmoil it is causing. The World Bank’s food price index rose 150 per cent from 2002 to January 2008, with half that increase coming since mid-2007.

As a result, countries all over the globe have witnessed food riots and many governments have implemented emergency measures to ration supplies or subsidize food for the poor. Riots over food prices in Bangladesh led the government to postpone elections. The World Food Program has urged members to increase donations; the organization cannot even meet its obligations to provide food relief to the world’s poor – the cost of which has increased $700 million in the past year alone – let alone meet new demands that have resulted from the increased cost of food.

The reasons for increased food prices across the globe are multiple and varied. Part of the reason is that population is growing, but that does not nearly explain the phenomenon, as population has been growing for centuries, yet both supply and prices go up and down.

The more immediate explanations include the growing middle classes of China, India and other developing world countries which, as they grow richer, want more proteins in their diet; China, for example, is replacing its rice and pork diet with more beef. Cattle require more wheat per pound than do human beings and thus to feed the Chinese beef means livestock farmers require grains that would otherwise be available for human consumption.

Also, an unusual number of countries have experienced disturbances to their supply of crops with droughts and floods limiting yields in Canada, the United States and Australia, and hail storms destroying a large number of India’s crops. India, normally self-sufficient in rice and grains, has been forced to buy on global markets, increasing upward pressure on food prices.

Another reason is the growing demand for biofuels. The United States is subsidizing ethanol productions, diverting corn from food to fuel; furthermore, many farmers are now growing corn rather than other crops to cash in on the federal subsidies. All this reduces supply and therefore, prices rise as demand grows.

To cope with rising prices, families in the developing world are reducing the number and variety of meals, risking malnutrition. Many commentators have dubbed steeply rising food prices “the silent tsunami,” because the devastation it causes does not win the headlines or charitable giving in the way that dramatic natural disasters such as the 2004 South Asia tsunami do.

While food price increases may not stir the popular imagination, they do cause official fretting at international organizations, such as the World Food Program, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Bank and the foreign aid establishments in the Western world. While there is genuine hardship associated with these price increases and efforts should be made to alleviate the suffering associated with them, there is little reason for the sort of long-term pessimism that has erroneously informed the neo-Malthusianism behind radical population control measures.

To take but one current example, on its website, the Club of Rome names at the top of its list for reasons for food price increases, “the demands of a growing population in many developing countries.” But as noted above, there are a myriad of reasons for food price increases; to blame population growth is to fall into a well-worn intellectual trap.

How Malthus got it all wrong

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) first wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 and updated it five times between then and 1826. He famously predicted that population grew geometrically, while food supplies grew arithmetically: “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometric ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” He said if population outstripped the ability of the food supply to feed it, there were natural checks on population growth – families would have fewer children if they could not feed them or either epidemics or starvation would prune the population. In worst case scenarios, countries would go to war for resources. In other words, a population’s ability to feed itself is generally a check on its own growth.

On the one hand, Malthus, an Anglican country parson, had an agenda. He disliked private and government charity and thus, his observations on population growth justified letting the poor on the streets of London starve to discourage them from having more children.

He also wrote his famous gloomy essay on population, in part, as a reaction against the utopian views of his contemporaries, William Goodwin and the Marquis de Condorcet. Both Goodwin and de Condorcet thought that human beings were perfectible under the right social conditions, a notion with which Malthus (rightly) disagreed. While Goodwin and de Condorcet were too optimistic, Malthus was too pessimistic.

But on the other hand, Malthus was not entirely wrong, considering the age in which he lived. Up until the beginning of the 19th century, population growth and economic growth, including agricultural production, roughly mirrored each other. His “mistake” as a demographer and economist was living at the precise moment he did. He observed the United States had doubled its population in 25 years and worried that the rest of the world would follow suit.

Tim Harford, a columnist with the Financial Times and author of The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World, says for most of history, “the only economic growth has been population growth.” The relationship, up to the time of Malthus, worked both ways. To a point, it was reasonable for Malthus to assume his gloomy thesis would be realized.

Angus Maddison, a professor emeritus of economic growth and development at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has studied and written about the history of economic growth. In Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History, Maddison noted how population growth follows the same trend as economic growth. He found that in the first millennium after Christ, the world’s population increased by less than one-tenth of one per cent and the global economy grew about one-sixth of that. Over the next 500 years, population grew 0.1 per cent and the economy grew 0.15 per cent. Likewise, between 1500 and 1820, the population grew 0.27 per cent while the global economy grew 0.32 per cent.

The Industrial Revolution was just underway when Malthus began writing his Essay on Population, so he would not have noticed that the economy was finally going to grow much faster than the population was.

From 1820-1870, the economy grew at twice the rate the population did (0.94 per cent compared to 0.4 per cent), mostly fueled by the use of new technologies (coal-powered factories and steam engines) in Europe.

Over the next four decades, the spread got even larger (2.12 per cent economic growth versus 0.80 per cent increase in the population). The trend continues through to the present day.

As Tim Harford notes in The Logic of Life, “Economists are typically wrong about the future, but few have ever been as spectacularly, famously, and lucklessly wrong as Thomas Malthus.”

Malthus was wrong because he did not foresee how the technological improvements of the 19th century would revolutionize agriculture and allow ever-fewer farmers to feed an ever-growing population, nor the benefits of trade. (Nor could he envision refrigerated cargo containers carrying food around the globe.) In Malthus’s time, roughly one in three people in the United Kingdom were working in the agricultural, fishing and forestry industries – most of them farmers. Within a century, that number was halved and by 2003, just 1.2 per cent of Brits were working within those industries. This would have shocked Malthus; for him, agriculture was a labour-intensive enterprise with most people living a subsistence existence and rural farmers selling their surplus to the cities. No wonder he thought population was imperiled by limited resource growth.

While some critics of Malthus, such as Allan Chase, author of The Legacy of Malthus, published in 1975, take the early demographer to task for ignoring or failing to understand the change that was occurring at his time, it is often common to miss or miscomprehend phenomenon that take place during one’s lifetime. But what excuse do his followers have?

Modern Malthuses

As Harford noted, Malthus was spectacularly and famously wrong, yet modern doomsayers continue to spout fears similar to his about overpopulation and impending catastrophe. The most famous is Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Even with the benefit of hindsight – knowledge of the Industrial Revolution that would make Malthus’s ideas wrong and obsolete – Ehrlich made the same outrageous claim that population growth would exceed the planet’s ability to feed its people. In his best-selling 1968 book, he said, “Too many people – that is why we are on the verge of the ‘death rate solution.’” That’s Malthus’s apocalyptic solution of famine and war to naturally slow down population growth.

Whereas Malthus wrote at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Ehrlich was writing as the Green Revolution in agriculture was maximizing farm productivity in Europe and drastically improving it in South Asia. In the 1960s and 1970s, improvements in land management techniques, increased fertilizer use and new technologies (including hybrid plants species) all contributed to greater crop yields and lower food prices. While the Green Revolution largely bypassed Africa, it allowed many countries in southeast Asia to become self-sufficient or nearly self-sufficient.

Yet, Ehrlich was unaware, ignored or did not understand the changes in agriculture that were occurring at this time. He was as wrong as Malthus when he declared, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Yet, population grew across the globe and food disasters such as that experienced by Ethiopia in the mid-1980s were the fault of government distribution policies, rather than an inability to feed the growing population.

Erhlich’s myopia was so extreme that he predicted mass starvation in America by 2000.

Also in 1968, the Club of Rome, a think tank-like groups of civil servants from around the world, scientists, economists and business people, was formed. The group was assembled by the Italian businessman Aurelio Peccei, and today it includes the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1972, the Club of Rome echoed Malthus’s doomsday predictions when it released a book-length report, The Limits of Growth, which would eventually be translated into more than 30 languages and sell 12 million copies. The Limits of Growth claimed, “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

It predicted not only reaching agricultural capacity, but also running out of other commodities, including oil and metals, as well as widespread environmental degradation.

The authors said that the limits of growth would be realized within a century, although there was a sense of urgency that indicated that serious problems were just around the corner. Four decades later, the Club of Rome website now claims current food prices might finally be ushering in the gloomy future it predicted in its 1972 manifesto.

It seems that every time that there is an increase in food prices or an environmental catastrophe or the planet reaches a new population milestone like six or seven billion, the nattering nabobs of negativism start bleating about Malthus finally being proven correct. It happened in the 1970s with rising food (and oil) prices and again in the 1990s when there was a slight bump in commodity prices. It is happening again today.

A number of pundits, environmentalists and NGOs have again raised the spectre of over-population, saying food prices reflect a world population – slated to increase to 7 billion by 2010 – that has (finally) outstripped its capacity to feed everyone. This is bunk. As Nobel prize-wining economist Gary Becker has noted, world prices recently increased by 75 per cent in less than one year, but world population did not increase 75 per cent over that same span. That is, food prices increases are not linked to population growth.

As noted earlier, there are alternative and more likely explanations (the developing world is getting richer, inclement weather destroyed an unusual number of crops and the diversion of some agriculture to biofuels). Yet, noted poverty expert Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University insists that population-control measures are part of any solution to reducing poverty.

Considering the evidence that has repeatedly proven Malthus wrong and the fact that there are other, more likely explanations for this food-price crisis, one might reasonably wonder whether some people have an ideological desire to see Malthus’s apocalyptic predictions come true. A century ago, playwright George Bernard Shaw candidly admitted, “There is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilization from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilizations.”

For the past half-century, there has been what Stephen Mosher of the Population Research Institute dubs the “Population Firm,” a group dedicated to using Malthus’s population principles as justification to force population control programs upon the developing world.

The “Population Firm” includes academics, NGOs such as Planned Parenthood, supposedly philanthropic foundations and the agencies of the United Nations including UNICEF (which often ties assistance to families to the mother becoming sterilized). The actions and mentality of the “Population Firm” have been well documented in these pages, as well as in books such as Jacqueline Kasun’s The War Against Population, Stephen Mosher’s Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits, and Paul Jalsevac’s paper, “The Inherent Racism of Population Control.” All demonstrate that population-control policies justified by the false ideas of Malthus are tantamount to a war on humanity.

Why the pessimists are wrong

Is the current food price crisis different? It is theoretically possible that this is finally the tipping point that Malthus predicted and that Ehrlich said would occur within a century, although his apocalypse was predicted within two decades of publishing his fatuous The Population Bomb. The followers of the Russian communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky used to say the sign of his genius was that 50 years after he made them they had not yet become true; he could see so much further into the future than others, they claimed.

Ditto Malthus?

Yet, the perspective of history provides a more sobering analysis of population growth and the prospects for the future, one that embraces humanity rather than sees it as a plague.

The economist Gary Becker has predicted that current food prices will not continue to rise indefinitely, because the market will increase supply. Noting that not all arable land is presently being used for agriculture, high prices will lead farmers to exploit new, previously unused land for crops and livestock. This is especially true in Africa, China and Russia, although it could take up to a decade to get such land producing large-scale crop yields.

There are also investments in new technologies, including new plant varieties that are able to sustain extreme weather, drought and pests. Genetically modified or hybrid foods might be able to provide nutrients currently unavailable in the diets of those in the developing world. In 2002, during World Youth Day in Toronto, Jim Nicholson, then U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, told the World Youth Alliance that one of his priorities working with Vatican officials was to promote safe, genetically modified foods to combat malnutrition in the developing world. He noted many Africans subsist on a diet of potato and in Asia, on rice; adding vitamins to these staples at the cost of pennies per serving will reduce malnutrition.

But those are long-term solutions.

There are three other reasons to think food prices will decline and food supply will increase.

The first is that last year’s problems were partly caused by more than the normal number of disruptions in the food supply. Droughts in Australia and Africa, floods in China and North America and hailstorms in India all seriously reduced the grain and corn yield.

This provides a perfect storm for food shortages, which drive up grain and rice prices. Record yields are expected in Canada and India this year and production in the United States is expected to return to normal, as the weather seems to have co-operated with increased seeding earlier this year in response to rising food prices.

Another reason for the correction in prices is that high prices are an incentive for developing world producers to improve their productivity. The Green Revolution – improved agricultural practices including fertilization and plant-breeding – missed Africa and there is hope by both political officials and academics there that improved farming techniques will finally take root on that continent.

Another problem is the diversion of some agri-products from food stuffs to fuel. The growing public and political fretting over global warming has led to increased taxpayer support for biofuel subsidies, such as producing ethanol from corn, soybeans or sugar cane. This reduces the amount of corn and other foods available for human consumption and drives up the price of agri-products, as food consumers and fuel consumers compete for a limited amount of source products. This raises serious ethical concerns.

Whatever the benefits of ethanol – and they are dubious – it seems wrong to take food out of the mouths of the hungry and put it into the fuel tanks of cars in the wealthy West. There is already a backlash against biofuel subsidies.

Re-setting our priorities

Much of Malthusian thinking undergirds fears of overpopulation and therefore, the thinking of those who propose anti-life policies, such as easy access to contraception, China’s one-child policy, abortion as a human right and forced sterilization as correctives the problem. The current concerns about rising food prices have unleashed another round of Malthusian fears. If history has taught us anything, however, it is that Malthus was wrong and his followers have been wrong time and time again.

The food price crisis will likely correct itself in time and it appears to already have begun to do so. In the meantime, instead of promoting policies to limit population growth, it would be better to solve some of the world’s deadly problems, such as malaria and malnutrition. For all the fretting about food prices, the Copenhagen Consensus, a Denmark think tank that looks at world issues and prioritizes the best way to address them given a set budget, has determined that for a relatively modest $300 million, the problem of malnutrition could be addressed on a large scale.

In their contribution to the Copenhagen Consensus’s Solutions for the World’s Biggest Problems: Costs and Benefits, Jere R. Berhman and his colleagues note that “severe hunger episodes” such as famine (and presumably crises such as rapid, widespread food price increases) garner press attention, while the problem of chronic malnutrition receives little fanfare.

About a billion people are affected by malnutrition – it limits physical and mental development, kills about 600,000 children a year and limits the productivity of those who make it to adulthood. To ensure that people have sufficient food to provide them with the “energy and nutrients for fully productive lives,” a relatively modest investment of $300 million would allow micro-nutrients such as iron, zinc and Vitamin A to be added to flour and other staples. That would eliminate childhood deaths from malnutrition and cost only a fraction of what the United States, for example, is spending subsidizing ethanol production.

The world does not need fear-mongering. It does, however, need more realism and a greater understanding of how the world works. More important, it needs to not fall victim to well-articulated but incorrect fears about food shortages that would lead to hasty and mistaken decisions about ideal population levels and growth rates.

Rather, rich Western countries should prioritize foreign aid to supply immediate, necessary food relief, while committing themselves to investing in micro-nutrients to address long-term health problems.
Governments in the developing world must not look at their people as a liability and so promote anti-life policies such as abortion and birth control.

Malthus was wrong and so are his followers. A little knowledge about human history would lead to an understanding that human beings are our greatest resource, not our greatest threat.

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