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The Battle to Feed All of Humanity Is Over. Humanity Has Won

As the editor of a website documenting human progress, I am sometimes asked to name the one statistic that best exemplifies the improving state of the world. The rising life expectancy immediately comes to mind, for to a dead person, all the other indicators of human well-being are irrelevant. Luckily, almost everyone knows that people today live much longer than our ancestors did. As such, I often end up talking about food consumption. For millennia, people lived on the edge of starvation. Today, starvation has disappeared outside of war-zones. Let’s look at some data.

In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Stanford University biologist and “overpopulation” alarmist Paul Ehrlich famously predicted that “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Between 1968 and 2017, the world’s population increased by 113 percent from 3.55 billion to 7.55 billion. Over the same time period, the average global food supply per person per day rose from 2,334 calories to 2,962—a 27 percent increase.

To put the magnitude of that achievement into proper perspective, consider the basic food consumption needs of your fellow human beings. The U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for 2015 — 2020 estimate that calorie needs per person per day range from 1,600 to 2,000 for women and 1,900 to 2,500 for men. That amounts to an average of 2,000 calories per person per day across sexes and over the entire human lifespan. Hence the crude “2,000 calorie diet” that every American knows about.

Of course, much depends on “the person’s age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity.” Thus, recommended female calorie consumption peaks between the ages of 19 and 25, with 2,000 calories for sedentary women and 2,400 calories for active ones. Recommended male calorie consumption peaks between the ages of 16 and 20, with 2,600 calories for sedentary men and 3,200 calories for active ones. Younger and older members of both sexes typically need many fewer calories.

Since the discovery of agriculture some 12,000 years ago, most people worked from dawn till dusk to produce enough calories—from fieldwork and husbandry—to see the next day. English records suggest food consumption of 1,500 calories per person per day in the 13th century, rising to 2,000 calories in the 14th century (an unexpected consequence of the Black Death, which made land cheap and labor dear), and then falling well below 2,000 calories until the 17th century. It was only in the 18th century that food consumption stabilized above 2,000 calories per person per day.

England was one of the world’s most developed regions. In France, calorie consumption remained stuck below 2,000 until the beginning of the 19th century. Not only were people before the Industrial Revolution very inefficient in producing food, but access to food was very precarious. Many people were only one bad harvest away from starvation. Children were routinely employed in agricultural tasks at the age of four, and woe unto an old or sick peasant without a family or charity to depend on.

According to the most recent estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food supply in only two out of 173 countries surveyed stood below 2,000 calories per person per day in 2017—the Central African Republic (1,758) and Madagascar (1,903). In Afghanistan it stood at 2,000. Everywhere else, it stood above 2,000 calories. Belgium and the United States topped the survey with 3,768 and 3,766 calories respectively.

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to be aware of the data. Consider the recent exchange between the immensely popular U.S. comedian Bill Maher who hosts Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO and U.S. Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill who represents New Jersey’s 11th district.

BM: What is your minimum wage in New Jersey?
MS: We’re slowly getting it up to 15 [U.S. dollars per hour].
BM: Still not enough to live.
MS: Well, this is the thing … nobody thinks to themselves “gosh, one day if I work hard, I can get a minimum wage job and I’m gonna be set” right? That’s not speaking to the middle class … I don’t think.
BM: And the other people don’t count? The people below the middle class?
MS: But the people below the middle class want to be in the middle class. So, the people below the middle class also say, “no, we want a minimum wage, we’re voting for it…”
BM: But in the meantime, don’t they want to eat?
MS: They want to do it, they want to eat, but that’s not what’s gonna move the hearts and minds of America because what everybody wants is a good, secure middle-class job with benefits, right? So, you don’t say, “oh, you can have a minimum wage and I don’t know how you’re gonna pay for healthcare, I don’t know how you’re gonna retire, I don’t know how you’re gonna take maternity leave if anyone gets sick…”
BM: Didn’t FDR say, “People don’t eat in the long run—they eat every day.”

Maher is a notoriously tough nut to crack, since his line of argument, like the weather, changes all the time. Just last month, for example, he complained about Americans being fat and dying from obesity in record numbers. Still, let’s take his argument seriously and look at food supply relative to the wages of American workers earning the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, though almost 90 percent of U.S. minimum wage workers earn more than that. In fact, the effective minimum wage in the United States came to almost $12 an hour in 2019.

An entire Costco rotisserie chicken, which contains 1,037 calories, costs $4.99. So, almost all Americans can access over 2,000 calories for less than on hour of labor. Instead of toiling an entire day to feed themselves, Americans spend most of their time at work earning money for mortgages, health insurance, education, leisure, etc.

Even in sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, food supply per person per day rose from 1,852 in 1961 to 2,449 in 2017 – a 32 percent increase. According to one report, “There is a silent epidemic sweeping through Africa and it’s worse than HIV. Out of the 20 fastest rising countries with obesity, nearly half of them are in Africa. The health burden on the continent is rising.”

I suspect that with increased wealth and access to information, Africans, like most people, will eventually find a happy medium between food consumption and healthy living. In the meantime, we cannot but conclude that the battle to feed all of humanity is indeed over and humanity has won.

 

Marian L. Tupy is Editor of HumanProgress and a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.  

Comments

  1. How dare Ms Tupy and her “Human Progress” website interfere with our inalienable right to be miserable!

  2. Maybe you should check the historical record for famines associated with socialism? Maybe ones with megadeaths? Say in… Ukraine!

    Or you could just look up the contributions of one Trofim Lysenko…

    The famines were avoidable, but the problem was that the farmers were too wealthy and got the chop, and nobody else could do their job.

    And then ideology took over agronomy and Lysenko doomed a whole generation of geneticists to ignominy and gulags.

    So what do you think will happen to the powerful and evil agricorps like Monsanto once their evil is tamed, say by being nationalized?

  3. Look at what happened to Venezuela. Their oil and food production collapsed.

  4. The problem was that Venezuela, first under Chavez, and then under Maduro, enacted a number of land reforms that basically interfered with existing land ownership, reapportioning it to small landholders. The market rewards those who are most able to extract wealth from resources, but with farming this also means higher productivity, with minimum labour and higher yields. It may be possible to argue that some areas of the economy suck, with Capitalism rewarding rent-seeking or non-productive exploits that really on the manipulation of speculative assets, but farming does not fall into this category.

    The closest financial manipulation comes to farming, is by treating farmland as a real estate commodity, forcing farmers to take on an unrealistic level of debt and become hyper-productive in order to keep the bill collectors from the door. The only other type of gaming-the-system I can think of is when Wealth Funds corner the market on a specific commodity, and then proceed to squeeze both ends of the supply pipeline, effectively inserting themselves as middlemen. This was always a threat to commodity markets as it wiped out capacity, making future yields even more unstable, precarious and subject to financial attack. Thankfully, the threat of this type of activity has largely receded, as advances in storage technology and warehousing have effectively made the Family Wealth Funds vulnerable to short squeezes if they engage in this type of activity again. Better financial models, based on historical data, have also also evened out the types of wild fluctuations in pricing we used to see, allowing farmers to achieve somewhat more predictable profits than before.

    A good article. I keep waiting to see a boom in value farming. With the emergence of a growing class of upper and upper middle consumers, intent on niche high value agricultural produce this must surely be coming. I keep waiting to see a plethora of high quality good in my supermarket, but at the moment it seems to be limited to Organic Chicken, a few nice wines, Balsamic Vinegar and ‘Taste the Difference’ Parmesan. Is all the really nice produce being shipped out to Asia, or something?

  5. Venezuela under Chavez broke up the large farms and turned them into small farms owned by inexperienced peasants, it’s talked about from an article in 2009 here. This was a significant cause of drop in food production. It’s basically the same issue as Zimbabwe had. But small farmers can’t compete when oil is cheap - as it is in an oil-exporting country - since they can’t compete with industrialised agricultural imports. Back in 2007 I wrote

    As a side note, this shows that Chavez’s policy of breaking up large farms and giving them to smallholder peasants is doomed to failure without price guarantees for their goods. In a free market, whoever makes the most profit will tend to absorb the other businesses; in agriculture, cheap fuel means large farms where machinery can be put to best use will make the most profit, while expensive fuel means smaller farms where you don’t have to use fuel at all will do best. Smallholders cannot succeed in a free market with fuel at $0.03/lt; but they could succeed if there were fixed prices for their produce, ensuring the smallholder’s profits and limiting the larger place’s profits. So Venezuela can have cheap fuel and price guarantees, or expensive fuel and a free market; but cheap fuel and a free market leads to big landlords taking everything over.

    They enacted price controls as I predicted, but since they had a currency collapse at the same time from printing too much money, this became meaningless. They actually fell apart even more quickly than Zimbabwe, which is surprising since they had the oil as a backup source of income (unlike Zimbabwe). But hey, that’s socialism for you. Sanctions didn’t help, but they were in trouble either way.

  6. A name I missed anxiously in Marian’s discussion was that of Norman Borlaug, who almost singlehandedly founded the Green Rvolution, and thereby made possible yield improvements of grain crops by a factor 4 to 5, so from 1 or 2 to 8 and 10 tons/ha, by a happy combination of better seed types and proper fertilizers. His granddaughter Julie was in Rotterdam last week and was asked how things are now, with that eternal struggle between green revolution and those organic, natural husbandries adherents. She warned for too much optimism and the much too rosy picture of selfsupporting traditional agriculture, meaning back breaking drudgery and rural misery, such as depicted here above, see that happy mother and child (as I saw her). Everybody his own glasses, of course.

    BTW, the green revolution was highly succesful in Mexico, India and China, but completely bypassed Africa, where they now have to import ever larger proportions of their food needs. See again the picture and landscape with toiling peasant of above, not suited for irrigated crops, too hilly and no proper government policy and plans to support the package of better seeds and inputs.

  7. If we were to ask people to compile a list of the ten greatest people of the 20th century, almost nobody would mention Norman’s name (few know who he is). But the man deserves to be at the very top of that list.

  8. If you have the land, topher, (and this doesn’t look like being the problem on the photograph, though lots of weeds to weed) and the time to spend on that land, it’s no problem (and hasn’t been for 1000s of years) to feed yourself and your family. In fact, I had a garden of 50m2 and could easily grow my potatoes, beans, peas, onions and cabbages on it, even without insecticides and artificial fertilizer (but some manure), it even didn’t cost me much labour with spade and hoe. Of course, my meat and cheese I had to buy, but that’s luxury you don’t really need. Also bread nd wheat no option in a garden, so yes, not a complete picture. But bread and wheat also for sub Sahara Africa is a recent thing.

    You are right that the woman most probably also buys maizemeal (to make her ugali porridge), and also she might have some extra job, if available, but that’s not really needed to keep you alive and healthy, maize and cassava or yams are the normally grown subsistence staples all over Africa (just by hoe and planting stick). But some additional income helps of course to buy that meal, and, lateron, to pay for the school fees of that sweet kid (happily sleeping as yet, not knowing what kind of world will wait her/him, growing up).

  9. You neglect to mention the fact that people are travelling from rural areas to the cities, voluntarily- because the standard of living is better in the slums than in rural areas.

    https://www.un.org/youthenvoy/2016/04/why-are-rural-youth-leaving-farming/

    Ideas of a wondrous idyllic pastoral are a complete myth, although I will admit that living in rural area, the scenery is good for the soul. Having performed agricultural work in my early youth, I can assure that almost any paid work is preferable to the manual labour element of the job. Being a kitchen porter or delivering newspapers in all weathers were a piece of piss, by comparison.

    If you read this more carefully, this is a criticism.

  10. My father had his compound at Port Harcourt raided when he was in the UK. The guy who was occupying his normal bunk got shot whilst in bed. I presume they replaced the mattress. By comparison my adventures bailing and pulling seedy beet were nothing by comparison to the sheer desperation economic privation causes- especially given that I had a nice home, good job and all the mod cons to return to every evening. I don’t think people realise just how hard life was even a hundred years ago in the West.

    At the onset of The Great War, the working classes were still considerably shorter than their more fortunate contemporaries, because of differences in nutrition. We have a 14th century pub in Norwich, parts of which look as though it was built for hobbits. I keep thinking about going up there with a tall friend, to take a photo entitled “Capitalism”- but I would have to buy a mobile phone first.

  11. No, to the contrary, the West is actively trying to prevent Africans from developing their own fossil fuel resources. Stopping fossil fuel plants in Africa is something that Oxfam, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the rest of the usual suspects all support. To rub salt in the wounds, the greenies convinced the World Bank not to support hydro in Africa either.

    Western aid has done little to help Africa and more of it won’t get better results. Cheap, reliable energy is a necessary condition for economic development.

  12. You nailed it right on the head! If you have a centralized government that uses nationalized industries to pay the bills they will then have a large budget to play with. And a socialist government will naturally spend as much money as they can to create useless government programs.

    HOWEVER, if there is a downturn in a given market that said government nationalized then all of a sudden a government won’t have enough money to keep their programs afloat. For example the US producing oil and natural gas domestically and in turn lowering the global price for energy.

    Will a socialist government pursue austerity programs or cut back on spending? I don’t think so. All governments have a hard time cutting back spending.

    Then all of a sudden the economy is up a creek. Because socialist governments will not/cannot ever cut back on their social programs, lest they have riots on the street, the government debt/gdp will explode. So naturally they debase their currency(modern monetary theory), steal from other industries and enforce price controls until everything flips upside down and ends up in a state of semi-anarchy.

    Thank you for pointing out that nationalizing industries to pay for socialism is economically unstable.

  13. Showing a graph of the price of oil falling in 2014 doesn’t explain why Venezuela was the only oil giant to suffer an economic crisis and humanitarian disaster sufficient to force a tenth of its population to flee. No, I’m not local to Alberta, but unless it was one of the best kept secrets of 2014, I doubt anything remotely comparable to the disaster in Venezuela occurred there.

  14. I’ve found what you’ve written to be very interesting, and I appreciate what you have put up. Near-subsistence life still existed in various pockets when I first came to Canada in the 70s, but it was dying out. Whether it’s agriculturally based, or based on something like fishing, it can be a decent way to live, especially if one isn’t interested in modern material goods or services. But even then, our urbanizing society will find ingenious ways to take away whatever little they can extract. Sometimes through taxes, sometimes through resource expropriation, often through simple self-righteousness (as in the anti-sealing campaigns, which devastated many coastal communities).

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