Hungry planet: how the world’s food supply fell into the Malthusian Trap

EdenTree’s Neville White on food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture

Explosive population growth, quickening climate change and entrenched developmental disparity have emerged as the pressing challenges facing humanity and the resources it relies on. Yet, the full implications of these rapidly changing global dynamics are still neither fully understood nor being properly addressed. The food supply chain is one of the areas most acutely affected by this shift.
Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) observed that an increase in food production improved the wellbeing of the population, but that this in turn led to population growth; in this worldview – called the Malthusian Trap – food production is always trying to keep up with the needs of an expanding population. Famously, Malthus observed that while population grows geometrically, food production can only keep up arithmetically.

Richer diets drive demand

In 1900, the world’s population was just 1.9 billion – in a century this has increased to 7.6 billion and is estimated to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050. This next phase of growth is equivalent to a ‘new’ China or India. Owing to longer lifespans, reduced child mortality, reductions in global poverty and rising incomes, the population is increasing by 1.1% a year, the majority in the developing world.
Economic growth has seen greater numbers lifted out of absolute poverty, with an increasing proportion of humanity now having choice when it comes to food, rather than just facing subsistence and survival. Rising wealth always drives increased food consumption, and especially enriched protein diets. In just 60 years, global protein consumption has grown by 450%. Protein demand drives the need for increased animal feed and land committed to grain production.

Supply-side stress

As the growth of food demand accelerates, the pressure to increase crop yields grows in tandem. Three key factors are crucial to increasing crop yields; land, water and people. Yet, each of these is under stress from distinct drivers.
Around 38% of the Earth’s total land surface is used for agriculture, however land given over to food production has declined over the past two decades. Growing urbanisation will reduce the availability of arable land still further. Each year it is estimated that around 10 million hectares are lost to urban development and erosion, and food security is at risk from economic alternatives; 40% of the US corn crop now goes to produce more lucrative bio-fuels.h6. Diminishing returns

The story of modern farming has sought to drive efficiencies from fewer hectares – but this is now tightening. The acute issues surrounding water stress were set out in our Amity Insight, Thirsty Planet Revisited. Agriculture is the greatest user of water, consuming 3.1 trillion M3 a year, accounting for nearly 70% of all abstraction; but this could be increasingly under pressure. Irrigation has been among the key drivers to improve crop yields, and whilst some countries have abundant water – Russia, Brazil – the ability to irrigate in developing countries may be at risk where rainfall is low.
Nearly all essential agricultural production is facing high water stress, including over half of irrigated cropland (58%), cotton, (57%) and wheat (43%).
Farming is one of the biggest and most critical economic sectors in the world, but unlike in the 14th century when as much as 75% of all labour was committed to husbandry, modern ‘industrial’ farming has had to perform with fewer and fewer participants. Farming is estimated to ‘employ’ as much as 26% of the global workforce, but much of this is family scale, artisanal production. The escalation of urbanisation is having a dramatic impact on agriculture by taking people out of farming and into middle-class urban employment.
The need to feed 9 billion people with a diminishing workforce will require a scale step in mechanisation and technology. Whilst nearly 90% of the world’s farms are small, at under 2.2 hectares, these only hold 24.7% of the total land dedicated to agriculture. Overall the number of farmers in the world appears to have peaked and is now falling.

Mechanisation can boost harvests

Mechanisation and improved techniques offer the best prospects for improving overall crop yields. Since 1900, US agricultural employment has fallen from 40% to 2% of the workforce, but in the same period farm production has more than doubled. Could this perhaps be the model for the developing world through to 2050?
The supply/demand gap in the global food supply chain is one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity today. There are steps that can be taken – improving mechanisation and new water technologies are early starts on the road to solving the crisis looming for our food – but these have seen limited uptake thus far. Until workable solutions have been found for the shortages in land, water and workers, the food supply will continue to be squeezed, with the environment and the poorest people in society suffering the most serious consequences.

Neville White is Head of SRI Policy and Research at EdenTree Investment Management