The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Nature Reports: Malthusians Wrong Again

By 2050, the global population is predicted to hit 9 billion people, and demand for agricultural crops is expected to double. Could catastrophe be looming as population growth finally outstrips our ability to feed all these new mouths? A study published in Nature last month is adding grist to the alarmist mill (read excerpts on Reddit):

[B]etween 1985 and 2005, the total global crop production increased by only 28% … Clearly, these recent gains in global crop production fall short of the expected demands [...]

Adding to this concern, some authors have suggested that yields for many important crops may be stagnating in some regions around the world … across 24–39% of maize-, rice-, wheat- and soybean-growing areas, yields either never improve, stagnate or collapse.

Though the study illustrates a real problem, it doesn’t necessarily mean Famine is galloping our way. As the study points out, if 24-39% of the world’s fertile areas are either stagnating or collapsing in productivity, 61-76% are improving their yields at least to some degree. This doesn’t automatically put humanity on a sustainable course, but it suggests that feeding a burgeoning global population may in fact be possible.

So what can be done to increase yields? The authors suggest that stagnation “could be overcome by adoption of best management practices… including fertilizer application, irrigation, pest management and others.” Mexico, it turns out, has some easily solvable problems:

[In the Americas] maize yield stagnation is especially widespread only in Mexico. Here … non-introduction/adoption of non-local but high-yielding maize seeds by farmers, may be responsible.

Non-local, high-yielding seeds: the kind genetically altered to withstand drought, disease, harsh weather conditions and poor soil. In a word, GMOs—something we like to bang on about every now and again here at VM. GMOs are not the entire solution to the complicated problem of how to feed the planet in the decades to come. But they do show how new technology can help solve environmental problems many Malthusians like to think are insurmountable.

Published on January 6, 2013 12:00 pm