6.4 Population and Food Production

Population and Food Production

Recall that English economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) proposed that the world rate of population growth was far outrunning the development of food supplies. Malthus proposed that the human population was growing exponentially, while food production was growing linearly. Below is an example:

  • Today – 1 person, 1 unit of food
  • 25 years from now – 2 persons, two units of food
  • 50 years from now – 4 persons, three units of food
  • 75 years from now – 8 persons, four units of food
  • 100 years from now – 16 persons, five units of food

During Malthus’s time, only a few relatively wealthy countries had entered Stage 2 of the demographic transition model high population growth. He failed to anticipate that relatively emerging countries would have the most rapid population growth because of a medical revolution. Many social scientists and even environmentalists are strong supporters of Malthus’s hypothesis of the coming global food shortage and are taking it several steps further. Human population growth and consumption may be outstripping a wide variety of the earth’s natural resources, not just food production. Billions of people may soon be engaged in a search for food, water, energy, and resources. These days, technology is allowing us to convert food into a fuel called ethanol. In the United States, large amounts of corn are being used to create biofuel as a way to remove ourselves from our addiction to oil. This has caused global corn prices to rise dramatically. Wars and civil violence will increase in the coming years because of scarcities.

Others discredit Malthus because his hypothesis is based on the world supply of resources being fixed rather than flexible and expanding. Technology may enable societies to be more efficient with scarce resources or allow for the use of new resources that were once not feasible. Some believe population growth is not a bad thing either. A large population could stimulate economic growth and, therefore, the production of food.

Marxists believe that there is no direct connection between human population growth and economic development within an area. Social constructs of hunger and poverty are the result of unjust social and economic power structures through globalization, rather than because of human population growth.

So even with a global community of 7 billion, food production has grown faster than the global rate of natural increase. Better growing techniques, higher-yielding, and genetically modified seeds, and better cultivation of more land have helped expand food supplies globally. However, many have noted that food production has started to slow and level off. Without new technology breakthroughs in food production, the food supply will not keep up with population growth.

The third agricultural revolution, also known as the Green Revolution, has been in response to these fears of a Malthusian food crisis. The Green Revolution consists of improvements to agriculture brought about by the application of modern scientific methods to the development of new crop varieties and agricultural inputs. The technologies of the Green Revolution first made their mark in the United States, but the term is most commonly used about their extension to farmers in developing countries.

Taking up Green Revolution technology involves adopting a whole package of inputs — improved seeds, new fertilizers, and new pesticides and herbicides, all of which have been designed to work together. The improved seeds were created through selective breeding and hybridization. The fertilizers and pesticides are composed of artificial chemicals designed to provide just the nutrients that crops need and to target their main pests and weeds. The Green Revolution produced dramatic gains in crop productivity where it was implemented, in some cases doubling or even tripling yields. Norman Borlaug, the agronomist who was the guiding force behind the Green Revolution and one of its most prominent spokespeople, was widely hailed as a hero who saved millions from starvation and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

There are many critics of the Green Revolution. While acknowledging some of the gains in the total food supply, these critics argue that the Green Revolution has several critical shortcomings. The health critiques raise concerns about whether the Green Revolution crops are safe to eat. This concern is particularly salient with respect to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While tests have generally shown GMOs to be safe to eat, critics worry that modified organisms could trigger adverse reactions in people, for example, if a person with a peanut allergy ate corn that had a peanut gene spliced into it. There is also concern that work on improving crops has focused on boosting the size and appearance of fruits, kernels, and more, at the expense of making them less nutritious. Finally, health may be impacted by the growing style of Green Revolution crops. The Green Revolution aggressively suppresses any organism in the field that could compete with the main crop. However, for many poor farmers, “weeds” are an important supplementary source of food. Ironically, adding vitamin A to rice through genetic modification is proposed as a solution when the vitamin A deficiencies that it will fix were caused in part by a loss of leafy green “weeds” to Green Revolution herbicides.

Environmental critiques raise questions about whether Green Revolution agriculture is good for the wider environment. There are several ways in which the environment could be affected. First, the successful use of Green Revolution technology often requires increased use of water. This can deplete water supplies in dry areas (and lead to demands for environmentally-disruptive dams to increase the water supply). Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers frequently run off the farm into streams, with adverse effects on downstream ecosystems. Green Revolution farming can also, in some cases, pollute and deplete the soil, meaning that the gains in productivity will not be sustainable. There are also concerns about the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, leading to the evolution of chemical-resistant super-bugs and super-weeds. Green Revolution farms can further exacerbate the problems of mono-cropping, converting large areas to farms with very low biodiversity and thus increasing susceptibility to disasters (weather-related, pest infestations, etc.). In the case of GMOs, a major worry is that modified genes will spread beyond the field. Wind and insects can carry plant pollen into neighboring non-GMO fields and non-farm areas. If the plants that receive the pollen cross-breed with the GMOs, the modified gene may become established off-farm, with potentially ecological severe consequences depending on the nature of the gene.

Social critiques center on the economic system that farmers become a part of when they adopt Green Revolution technology. Traditional agriculture was largely self- contained. Farmers produced their inputs by saving seeds from previous harvests to plant next year, by collecting their natural fertilizers, and by using their household labor to till the fields. However, the improved seeds and the package of chemical inputs that make up the Green Revolution cannot be produced on the local farm. They have to be mass-produced by large agribusiness companies and then sold to farmers. Farmers then become dependent on companies like Monsanto to buy their inputs and sell their products. The contracts that farmers sign with these companies often put small farmers at a disadvantage. Depending on the arrangements made by the farmers, they may then become highly dependent on the international agricultural market — meaning that global shifts in prices for both inputs and farm products can determine their ability to make ends meet.

An emerging trend in agriculture, which is in some ways opposed to but in other ways parallel to the Green Revolution, is the rise of organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is agriculture that avoids the use of “artificial” chemical inputs and genetically modified crops. The organics movement originated as an attempt to avoid the problems arising from the Green Revolution by creating a farming system that works in harmony with the land. This original vision of organic agriculture is reflected, for example, in community supported agriculture programs, which usually practice organic farming. In community supported agriculture, customers buy a “share” or subscription at the beginning of the growing season, then receive a portion of whatever produce the farm manages to grow. This system is meant to spread the risks of farming between farmers and consumers, create a closer bond between the farmer and consumer, and make organic agriculture more profitable. As the popularity of organic food has grown, organics have become big business. Major corporations now coordinate the production of organic ingredients all over the world. Due to the diversity of techniques and differing demands of different crops, there remains much controversy over how well organic farming achieves its goals of reducing its ecological footprint and improving consumer nutrition.

Green Revolution 2.0

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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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