Was Malthus right?

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Thomas Malthus penned his terrifying vision for the future of mankind more than two centuries ago, but it still haunts us today. He believed that we could never overcome two basic laws of nature – man’s ability to procreate would always outstrip our planet’s ability to feed everybody. His view is one of perpetual poverty and misery, of a society that could never alleviate man’s suffering. (He must have been a ton of laughs at a party.) It’s a compelling argument, and to a certain extent, Malthus has proven prescient. There are 925 million people who go hungry every day, despite the amazing economic prosperity we’ve enjoyed over the past 60 years. And twice in the past three years we’ve suffered through destabilizing spikes in the cost of food that have trapped tens of millions in poverty. Today, prices are nearly at historic highs.

So was Malthus right? That’s the subject of my latest story in TIME magazine. The answer: He might be, if we don’t get our act together.

The reason we’ve avoided a Malthusian nightmare over the past two centuries is that we’ve been able to outsmart nature. Malthus misjudged man’s ability to develop the necessary technologies to use the land, water and other limited resources of our planet more efficiently. Food production has more or less kept up with population growth. Yes, hundreds of millions are malnourished, but that’s not because the planet can’t produce enough for everyone. It’s because the food we do produce either gets wasted, or doesn’t get to the people who need it. The problem of hunger is made by man, not Mother Nature.

So are the roots of our current food crisis. As demand for food has continually increased, not just due to population growth, but also to expanding wealth, the productivity of our farms has waned. Annual yield growth has fallen precipitously from the gains we achieved during the 1950s and 1960s. .You’d think just the opposite would be true – in a world in which technology is advancing by the second, it would make sense to think the same is happening in agriculture. But the reality is that we’ve taken our hand off the plough – policymakers simply haven’t devoted the funds to agriculture that are needed to make our farms more productive. We haven’t been investing enough in R&D to achieve important technologically breakthroughs or in rural infrastructure (irrigation systems, roads, storage facilities) to help farmers grow more food and get it to the consumer more easily. Nor have we been utilizing the technology that is already out there to improve yields.

We’re seriously paying for the neglect of the world’s farms. Reserves of grain have been on the decline (relative to demand) – which means our food safety net has shrunk. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, we consumed more grain than we produced in the 2010/11 marketing season. Even if prices come off their current high, food is still expected to cost significantly more over the next decade than the previous one. And as our population continues to expand, while our land and water resources do not, the strain on food markets is only going to get worse. Yes, this all sounds scary. I’m not predicting a Malthusian crisis, or widespread food shortages and famines. But making sure we have enough food – and not just enough, but at levels where prices come down to the point where poor people can afford proper diets – is really one of the biggest issues facing the global community.

What’s the solution? A contemporary of Malthus – Adam Smith – might have the answer. Smith believed that free markets solve problems. Scarcity implies profits, and profits attract investment and spur innovation. There are already signs that farmers, responding to high prices, are planting more crops, as U.S. corn farmers have done this year. The answer to the food crisis might well be making markets work better – improving the physical infrastructure in rural areas so farmers can get their produce to cities; increasing the level of information about global food availability; breaking down regulatory hurdles that impede the introduction of new technologies. The only way to solve our food problem is to make sure more money, technology and resources get directed at agriculture in ways that improve production and efficiency.

We’re really not close to where we need to be at this point. The FAO says that investment in agriculture in the developing world has to increase about 50% from current levels if we’re going to meet the needs of an expanding population. If we don’t pay more attention to our farmers, Malthus might come back to haunt us.