Do the words of Thomas Malthus still hold water?

The Russian-Ukrainian war drove up commodity prices around the world. While some countries are stopping their exports to bring down inflation, others are considering rethinking their agricultural strategies.

India banned the export of wheat to contain domestic prices, just days after Indonesia imposed a similar ban on palm oil, only to ease it later. Some even call it “de-globalization” because food protectionism is on the rise around the world. And that could further fuel global inflation.

So, is global food production keeping pace with population growth?

Let’s start with a 1798 essay by Englishman Thomas Malthus. Malthus had declared that population growth would overtake food production to cause shortages and famine.

Although not the first dark theory on population, the “Malthusian catastrophe” has been widely discussed and criticized as well. Two years later, in 1801, the British government took the first census.

Malthus was wrong. But the theory resonated again in the 1960s when newly independent countries wanted to be self-sufficient in food.

Their reason was not so much the subsistence of the population as the liberation from the chains of dependency. India’s green revolution was a step in this direction.

But times have changed. Decades of peace and globalization have prompted most countries to liberalize trade rules for food products.

For example, rice trade increased by 22% between 2014 and 2022. Wheat trade is expected to increase between 2017-2018 and 2021-22 (July-June period), with no change in production during these years.

As the old world order is challenged, countries are once again worried about running out of food grains. Europe is being criticized for its farm-to-table strategy that promotes sustainable agriculture.

A Trade standard An analysis has found that food insecurity – the number of people with insufficient access to food – is a problem that worsened for years when the Russia-Ukraine crisis accentuated it.

Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ State of Food Security and Nutrition report show that globally the number of food insecure people moderate or severe increased to 30.6% in 2020 from 22.6% in 2014.

In Africa, the prevalence of food insecurity increased from 47.3% to 59.6% during this period, with countries on the continent focusing on export crops rather than commodities.

Meanwhile, production has not kept pace with consumption. Data from the United States Department of Agriculture report shows that global consumption of corn, wheat and rice will exceed production in the coming year.

Although this does not immediately translate into shortages, a prolonged period of production and consumption gap can cause problems.

Malthus’ statement sounds correct to some, but what he failed to see was the human capacity for innovation. A few decades after its moorings, mechanization improved agricultural productivity. Will technology come to the rescue again?

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