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I had this article in the Times on 14 January:
The person who tips the world population over seven billion may
be born this year. The world food price index hit a record high
last month, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Bad
harvests in Russia and Australia, combined with rising oil prices,
have begun to cause shortages, export bans and even riots. Does
No. Never has the world looked less likely to starve, or our
grandchildren more likely to feed well. Never has famine been less
widespread. Never has the estimated future peak of world population
It is true that the world population may pass seven billion some
time in the next twelve months, but the rate of growth is
decelerating. World population is now growing at just over 1% a
year, down from roughly 2% in the 1960s. The actual number of
people added to the world population each year has been dropping
for more than 20 years.
This deceleration took demographers by surprise. As recently as
1980 many were still forecasting that the current century would see
15 billion people and rising. Only in 2002 did the United Nations
realise that its models were wrong to assume that birth rates would
not drop below 2 children per woman in many countries. Now the UN
estimates that the population will most probably peak at 9.2
billion in about 2075 before starting a slow decline. Population
quadrupled in the twentieth century; it will not even double in
Everywhere, the fall in the birth rate is dramatic. Countries
like Iran and Sri Lanka now have total fertility rates below two
children per woman. Bangladesh is now down to 2.7 from 6.8 in 1955.
Nigeria's birth rate has halved. These `demographic transitions'
are proving as predictable as they are mysterious. They seem to
happen because women stop fearing their babies will die, and
because they move to cities, get educated, get access to birth
control and get richer. In other words, the causes are benign;
coercion, of the kind so many `experts' have long urged, is neither
necessary nor helpful.
As for food prices, that `record high' is nothing of the kind -
if you take inflation into account. Food prices are up in real
terms since 2000, but they are still about 30% below the level in
1980 and 85% down since 1900. In terms of wages, the decline has
been even steeper.
Despite a doubling of the population, global food production per
head is 30% up on what it was in the 1950s.
Besides, the current spike in food prices is caused by
prosperity, not desperation. Newly-rich Chinese and Indians are
eating more meat, boosting demand for grain to feed livestock.
Meanwhile still-rich Americans and Europeans are indulging their
farmers and green activists by taking food and turning it into
motor fuel, a policy that pushes up food prices, hurts taxpayers
and encourages habitat destruction.
You can bet your farm that all over the northern hemisphere
farmers are planting more acres this winter - that's the effect
high prices always have (and spare a nod of gratitude to
speculators, whose antics bring forward those extra plantings). So
food prices will drop again.
Farm yields have been marching upwards for decades and will
continue to do so. In the past sixty years, the total harvest of
the big three crops that provide the bulk of our calories - maize,
wheat and rice - has trebled, yet the acreage planted has hardly
This trend is going to continue partly thanks to low-tech
changes already in the pipeline. Helped by Chinese investment,
improved transport to get African crops to market with less waste
will make a big difference. As will tractors, which boost
production by 25% or so - because they free the land for human food
that would otherwise be needed to feed bullocks or horses.
African farmers will start to use much more fertilizer, as
western farmers do, which makes it possible to sustain yields
without exhausting the soil. A few years ago environmentalists
argued that fertiliser would soon run short, because it is made
using natural gas, a fossil fuel. But the discovery of how to
extract abundant shale gas has turned that argument on its head:
there are probably many decades' worth of natural gas now available
to make fertilizer.
There are high-tech changes afoot too. Maize and rice that have
been genetically modified to resist pests and use less water,
soybeans with better amino acid balance for pig food, wheat that
can resist rust - all these are coming. Benighted Europe may reject
these GM crops for superstitious reasons but surely not for long.
The environmental benefits alone are now stark: GM crops can be
pest resistant without the use of sprays that kill harmless insect
The more yields increase, the more land can be set aside from
food production for reforestation and national parks. This is
happening already. National parks are expanding steadily, and land
that was once farmed is being returned to forest, especially in
countries like Britain and America. That is a huge contrast to a
century ago, when farming kept up with population only by expanding
into new areas of steppe, pampas and prairie.
Don't forget another factor. Carbon dioxide levels in the air
are rising. CO2 is a raw material that plants use to make sugars,
which is why many greenhouse owners pump CO2 over their crops to
boost production. The results of more than 600 experiments with
rice, wheat and soybeans exposed to the sort of carbon dioxide
levels expected by 2050 (an extra 300 parts per million) all show
remarkably consistent 30+% increases in yield. And the higher the
CO2, the less water a plant loses in absorbing it, so water stress
will improve too. Plus, if global warming happens, it is likely to
produce more rainfall, so that regions like the Sahel will continue
to become greener, as it has in recent decades.
For all these reasons food production will probably continue to
rise faster than population in the decades ahead. There will still
be price spikes caused by bad weather or foolish policies, and
there will be challenges: policies that encourage innovation cannot
be taken for granted. Yet so long as trade is free and innovation
flourishes, by 2050 it is easily possible that we can feed nine
billion people with more and better food from less land.