What the Starvation Lobby Ignores

December 10, 1996 • Commentary
By Julian L. Simon
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Paul Ehrlich began his best‐​selling 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” by warning: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” That same old fear was back recently at the United Nations World Food Summit in Rome. An Associated Press dispatch previewing the conference reported: “It’s shaping into the great debate for the 21st century: Can the world produce enough to feed another few billion people?”

A reasonable, prudent answer to the AP’s question is: With presently available technology, humanity can feed an ever‐​growing population, with ever‐​better nutrition, for centuries.

Terrible Scenarios

Some worriers have called for strong measures to restrict population growth– “compulsion if voluntary methods fail,” as Mr. Ehrlich wrote. Others have urged “triage—letting the least fit die in order to save the more robust victims of hunger.” A 1967 book by William and Paul Paddock, titled “Famine‐​1975!,” applied this concept to Haiti and Egypt and found that both “can’t be saved,” meaning that we should write off the entire populations of these countries, withhold food and allow them to starve.

Happily, such terrible scenarios have not materialized. Instead, people around the world have been increasingly better fed, and are living longer and healthier lives. Recent decades have seen an unmistakable increase in world food production per person, as the nearby graph shows. The greatest starvation disasters‐​the deaths of seven million Ukrainians and other Soviet citizens in the early 1930s and of 30 million Chinese between 1958 and 1961‐​were caused by deliberate government policies: Stalin purposely murdered his people, and the Chinese communist leaders practiced tragically wrong‐​headed economics.

Indeed, the graph understates the extent of the improvement in world food supply Because it shows food production, it does not take into account the increase in the amount of food that actually reaches consumers as a result of improvements in transportation and storage.

The long‐​run price trends for food tell the most important story. The market price of wheat adjusted for inflation has fallen over the past two centuries despite a growing world population and rising incomes. Even more startling, the piece of wheat relative to wages in the U.S. has fallen to perhaps 1/​20th of its level two centuries ago. Progress in food production has not been steady, of course, due in part to tragedies of politics and war. Yet there has been no period so bad that it would support a conclusion of long‐​term retrogression.

Shown these data, people sometimes ask: “Where are the other numbers– the numbers the worried folks base their forecasts on?” The answer is that there simply are no other data. The starting year of these data series is the earliest given in the basic historical sources; this should reassure you that it was not chosen arbitrarily so as to rig the results. The data in the graph are published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United Nations, collected by the U.N. from individual countries; the price data since 1800 are published by the Census Bureau. Of course the data are far less reliable than one would like; economic data usually are. But these are the only official data. Standard, reliable data that would show a worsening trend in recent decades just do not exist.

It you doubt it, inquire of the authors of frightening forecasts, the U.N., or the Department of Agriculture. Or even better, go to your local library and examine such basic reference sources as Statistical Abstract of the United States, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Production Yearbook, and Historical Statistics of the United States. Long‐​term progress began in the Westernized countries in the middle 1700s. European economic historians have documented that by the second half of the 1800s, daily food Intake in Norway, France and Germany had risen from much less than 2,000 calories per person to more than 3,000, and the amount of animal protein per person had doubled or tripled.

Continuing progress is visible in the substantial height increase of Europeans from the late 18th century to the present, as studied by the economic historian Robert Fogel and his colleagues. Even more dramatically, in just the past half century the average height of Japanese males increased from perhaps 4 feet 7 inches to 5 feet 5 inches. And amazingly, the age of first menstruation, an indicator of nutrition, has fallen to just over 13 years from more than 16 in Western Europe since the latter part of the 1800s.

And the good news gets better. Though total food output soared, the proportion of the labor force needed in agriculture has steadily declined world‐​wide. Productivity per worker and per acre have improved thanks to power machinery and biological innovations induced by increased demand, the improved ability of farmers to get their produce to market on better transportation systems, and, most importantly, expanding economic freedom. Socialized agriculture and government interventions in the market have been disastrous no matter where and when they’ve been tried.

Food prospects grow better still due to genetic manipulation of plants and better methods of irrigating, cultivating and fertilizing. But even without the further progress that is sure to come, the future is assured for farmland and food. For perspective, consider that the entire world’s population could be housed on one‐​eighth‐​acre plots in Texas. Each family could feed itself nicely by devoting perhaps one‐​fifth of its space to raising food with artificial light and hydroponic agriculture, using present commercially operating technology. Seventy‐​five square feet grows enough food to sustain a person. An average bedroom, 18 feet by 18 feet, supplies a family of four. For crops requiring more space, or twice the family size, add a deck to the room and double the production.

This is not Buck Rogers futurism, and not a desperate last resort. The technology is already in commercial use without government subsidies. Around Washington, D.C., a dozen farms raise vegetables hydroponically. Due to the produce’s high quality, the farmers receive premium prices from supermarkets and restaurants. A Midwestern company called PhytoFarm produces mainly lettuce and other garden vegetables in a factory 200 feet by 250 feet-50,000 square feet, a bit more than an acre‐​at a rate of a ton of food per day, enough to feed between 500 and 1,000 people.

Starvation Scares

For decades, mainstream agricultural economists have recognized this trend toward improvement in world food supplies. For example, in an authoritative 1974 review the economist D. Gale Johnson concluded that “there has been a long term gradual improvement in per capita food consumption over the past two centuries.” And in a 1975 compendium, despite the poor harvests and food worries in the early 1970s, agricultural economists spoke nearly in one voice: “The historical record lends support to the more optimistic view.”

Yet the starvation scares will probably continue, for that’s what headlines are good for. Still, we can give thanks this holiday season, secure in the knowledge that there’ll be turkey dinners forever.

About the Author
Prof. Simon is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of “The Ultimate Resource 2,” just out from Princeton University Press.