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Volume IconDo Thomas Malthus's words still hold water?

If the Ukraine-war doesn't end soon, we may witness food crises in parts of the world. So, do we need another green revolution to boost food production and save us from Thomas Malthus's prophesy?

ImageIshaan Gera New Delhi

 The Russia-Ukraine war has sent commodity prices soaring across the world. While some countries are halting exports to bring down the inflation, others are mulling rethinking their agricultural strategies.


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India put a ban on wheat export to contain domestic prices, just a few days after Indonesia placed a similar ban on palm oil, only to relax it later. Some even call it “de-globalisation”, as food protectionism has been rising across the world. And it may further fuel global inflation.


So, is the world’s food production keeping pace with the rising population?


Let us begin with a 1798 essay by Englishman Thomas Malthus. Malthus had said that population growth would outpace food production to cause shortages and famine.


Though not the first grim theory on population, “Malthusian catastrophe” was widely debated, and criticised too. Two years later, in 1801, the UK government went on to conduct the first census.


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


Their reason was not as much population sustenance but freedom from the shackles of dependence. India’s green revolution was a step in that direction.


But times changed. Decades of peace and globalisation prompted most countries to liberalise trade rules for food commodities.


For instance, the rice trade increased 22 per cent between 2014 and 2022. Trade in wheat is expected to increase between 2017-18 and 2021-22 (July-June period), without any change in production over these years.


As the old world order is challenged, countries again fear running out of food grains. Europe is being criticised for its farm-to-fork strategy promoting sustainable farming.


A Business Standard analysis found food insecurity -- the number of people with insufficient access to food-- is a problem that was piling up for years when the Russia-Ukraine crisis accentuated it.


Data from Food and Agriculture Organisation’s ‘The state of food security and nutrition in the world’ report shows that worldwide, the number of moderately or severely food insecure people rose to 30.6 per cent in 2020, compared to 22.6 per cent in 2014.


In Africa, food insecurity prevalence increased from 47.3 per cent to 59.6 per cent during this period, as the continent’s nations focused on export crops instead of staples.


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


While this would not translate into shortages immediately, a sustained period of production and consumption gap may cause problems.

Malthus’ claim appears correct to some, but what he did not perceive was human capacity for innovation. Within a few decades of his moorings, mechanisation improved farm productivity. Will technology come to the rescue again?

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First Published: May 27 2022 | 7:00 AM IST

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