It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction. Man has made amazing progress recently in his potential mastery of these two contending powers. Science, invention, and technology have given him materials and methods for increasing his food supplies substantially and sometimes spectacularly, as I hope to prove tomorrow in my first address as a newly decorated and dedicated Nobel Laureate. Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas.
That is from Norman Borlaug's 1970 speech in acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. Borlaug, of course, is known as "the father of the Green Revolution" for his work in the development of high-yield, disease resistant crops that made famine a spectre of the past. It might even be argued that Borlaug saved the lives of more people than anyone else who has ever lived (hard to measure, but the number is perhaps in the hundreds of millions and is rising every day).
This excerpt from Borlaug's speech caught my eye, however, because it was Borlaug, as much as anyone else in recent memory, who helped put to rest Malthusian worries about food production not keeping pace with population growth. It seems to me that Borlaug, of all people, ought to have been an optimist about Planet Earth's ability to feed an increasing population. And yet, here we have Borlaug worrying that some areas don't produce enough food to match population growth.
To be sure, even today, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization notes that approximately 870 million people around the world suffer from undernourishment, mostly in the developing world (a number which, I must point out, has been falling for at least the past 20 years). A look at this FAO map, however, shows that these countries tend to be the ones in which the citizens' access to world food markets is blocked or disrupted by lousy political regimes, wars, or, to a lesser extent, geography.
Yes, hunger is a problem for the people in these areas, but not because that specific geographic area isn't producing sufficient calories. After all, large cities like New York, Tokyo, and London produce almost no food whatsoever, yet the residents of these cities do not starve. Moreover, in the USA as a whole, some have estimated that up to 50% of all food goes to waste. Rich countries thus have a surplus of food, much of which could likely be exported to those with growling stomachs.
In countries like India, where hunger and malnutrition remain a problem despite the country's fertile agricultural regions, waste is similarly a cause of hunger, albeit for different reasons. Readers may recall the resistance Wal-Mart faced as it tried to bring its world-class efficiency to an Indian market where asinine regulations, crumbling infrastructure, and inefficient transportation mean that 35% of fruits and vegetables go to waste.
There is, in short, plenty of food in the world, if not right outside one's door then certainly available for importation. For a variety of reasons (none of which are Borlaug's fault), however, it isn't ending up in the bellies that could most use it. Rather than worrying about population growth as a cause of hunger, then, keep your eye on the real ball - that is, the human-created barriers which prevent the earth's abundant supplies of food from reaching those who need it.
For more on Norman Borlaug, have a listen to this interview he did with Penn Jillette: