September 20, 2009
Death Of Norman Borlaug And World Hunger

Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for is work in developing new plant strains to boost crop output to reduce world hunger, died recently. This has occasioned many essays about his legacy. In the past I've read arguments that Borlaug and the Green Revolution showed that we do not have to worry about world hunger as long as science, technology, and free markets are allowed to flourish. I am skeptical of that line of argument. It is interesting to note that Borlaug did not believe innovations in food production eliminated the need to control human reproduction.

Borlaug was not naive on these issues, though. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he recognised that "we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction":

There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort. Fighting alone, they may win temporary skirmishes, but united they can win a decisive and lasting victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind.

Borlaug said this in 1970 when the global human population stood at 3.7 billion. Today, it is fast approaching seven billion. Modern farming has won the "battle" with population control convincingly.

Think we've made great strides in eliminating hunger? In fact, advances that boosted food production have enabled the human popuation to grow so large that we can have far more people hungry than was the case 200 years ago. Every day 1 billion people go hungry.

19 June 2009, Rome - World hunger is projected to reach a historic high in 2009 with 1 020 million people going hungry every day, according to new estimates published by FAO today.

The world's population hit 1 billion in the year 1804. So more humans are hungry today than were hungry in 1804 (since not all humans in 1804 were hungry). I am curious to know whether one could somehow calculate the percentage of people who were hungry in 1804 and later in the 1800s. How big did the human population grow until 1 billion people were hungry? To 2 billion? 3 billion?

I expect the hunger problem to worsen as declining oil production in the 2010s causes economic contraction even as populations grow. Higher costs for fertilizer, fuel for tractors, and other energy-dependent inputs will reduce per capita food availability.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 September 20 08:01 PM  Trends Demographic

James Bowery said at September 20, 2009 8:40 PM:

The incursions of barbaric pastoralists seem to do civilizations less harm in the long run than one might expect. Indeed, two dark ages and renaissances in Europe suggest a recurring pattern in which a renaissance follows an incursion by about 800 years. It may even be suggested that certain genes or traditions of pastoralists revitalize the conquered people with an ingredient of progress which tends to die out in a large panmictic population for the reasons already discussed. I have in mind altruism itself, or the part of the altruism which is perhaps better described as self-sacrificial daring. By the time of the renaissance it may be that the mixing of genes and cultures (or of cultures alone if these are the only vehicles, which I doubt) has continued long enough to bring the old mercantile thoughtfulness and the infused daring into conjunction in a few individuals who then find courage for all kinds of inventive innovation against the resistance of established thought and practice. Often, however, the cost in fitness of such altruism and sublimated pugnacity to the individuals concerned is by no means metaphorical, and the benefits to fitness, such as they are, go to a mass of individuals whose genetic correlation with the innovator must be slight indeed. Thus civilization probably slowly reduces its altruism of all kinds, including the kinds needed for cultural creativity (see also Eshel 1972).

Hamilton, W.D. (1975), Innate social aptitudes of man: an approach from evolutionary genetics, in R. Fox (ed.), Biosocial Anthropology, Malaby Press, London, 133-53.

Girm said at September 20, 2009 9:19 PM:

Most of these issues could have been handled simply: Whoever receives food aid is also sterilized. We prevent people from starving and we force the evolutionary outcome that if someone can't feed themselves then they should not reproduce.

Natural selection is served and no one starves. It's the best of both worlds.

James Bowery said at September 21, 2009 5:50 AM:

That's a tricky one since people are routinely deprived of land by those who are worse at producing carrying capacity but may be able to "feed themselves" off the economic rent thereby accrued.

Lono said at September 21, 2009 9:07 AM:

Raise the standard of living and birth rates plummet.

That's the best and most logical solution to this problem.

Simply replace the tribal throwback Kleptocracies around the world with a Brave New World run by intellectual Alpha's and a stable equilibrium will result.

Of course covert, forced sterilization of the sheeple will remain an option - but certainly not an ethical or empathetic one. And not one that allows for optimum genomic diversity of our species.

After that encourage somewhat increased breeding on off world colonies until pregnancy is culturally replaced with lab grown and engineered Humans.

It really isn't rocket science people...

Brian said at September 21, 2009 1:10 PM:

Raise the standard of living for Women but not too far. Provide increased opportunities for women to contribute in ways other than child bearing.

mabirch said at September 21, 2009 3:41 PM:

Question - How much of the present world hunger is directly attributable to the increased population as opposed to that which is directly attributable to wars, kleptocracy, direct oppression, and poor infrastructure?

Reid said at September 21, 2009 4:21 PM:

Borlaug was a global warming skeptic. He understood that rising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were a great benefit to life on the planet.

A question for the astute readers of FuturePundit. What percentage of the "Green Revolution" is due to the concurrent rise in CO2? This notion is heresy according to current intellectual fashion but it is a serious question that receives little attention and funding. My estimate is that 50% of the success of the Green Revolution is due to significantly higher CO2 plant feedstock concentrations.

anonyq said at September 21, 2009 4:42 PM:


That is more the postponement effect that that women get more kids.

anonyq said at September 21, 2009 5:18 PM:

Reid, CO2 is rarely the limiting factor in plant growth so your 50% is unlikely to be a good guess.

Mabirch: rhetorical question?

Randall Parker said at September 21, 2009 6:25 PM:


Among the things plants need:

Higher CO2 allows plants to close up and lose less water since they can get enough CO2 with less air circulation into leaves. But the NPK fertilizers are much more important. The Green Revolution was in large part selection for plants that could absorb higher concentrations of NPK combined with the provision of larger amounts of NPK.

Higher CO2 will help more as plants get selected for to grow faster in higher CO2. But to the extent that warming causes less rainfall in temperate zones the net effect could be negative for agriculture.

mabirch said at September 21, 2009 11:24 PM:

Anonyq: No, not a rhetorical question. Several posts on this thread either explicitly or implicitly attribute hunger and other lacks to the size of the population. My question is a real one. Are most of the people who are going hungry today going hungry because there are more mouths to feed than there is potential, sustainable food available, (even presently available)? Or are there some portion of those who don't have enough to eat who are suffering deprivation due to other reasons. For instance, Zimbabwe certainly has the potential to feed all of its people and many surrounding peoples but is not presently doing so because of political/governmental reasons. What is the proportion of each?

Steve said at September 22, 2009 12:32 AM:

mabirch: "wars, kleptocracy, direct oppression, and poor infrastructure" are frequently the result of increased population. When too many people compete for the same resources, prices rise, standards of living fall, there is less money available for infrastructure, and wars result. When people become habituated to low living standards, kleptocracy and direct oppression flourish.

I'm sure the numbers on this are going to be unsatisfactorily squishy, though there is suggestive evidence: Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa (and the second largest genocide ever, as % of population), followed by Burundi (fourth largest genocide ever, as % of population).

There are plenty of cornucopian arguments showing that we can feed 13+ billion people if we all go vegetarian, learn to enjoy krill paste, and don't mind every large mammal being extinct outside zoos. However, the evidence seems to show that people of most cultures choose violent conflict well before this happens. Jared Diamond even argues in "Collapse" that substantially all extant wars are due to overpopulation relative to resources, though I can't find this reference at the moment.

anonyq said at September 22, 2009 6:14 AM:

Rwanda was a food exporter at that time, you could claim that it was work related genocide but not a food related genocide. Problem with Rwanda and Burundi was more that it is populated by two different people who speak a different, not related language, and who look different. At the divide and conquer policies of the Belgians and you have a powder cake

Nick G said at September 22, 2009 3:18 PM:


Look at the last comment on the article for a convincing argument that rising living standards do not raise fertility:

I would note that some countries explicitly choose to encourage fertility when it drops very low (based in part on institutional inertia - retirement ages need to rise when longevity rises), so if there is a bounce, it's not just personal choices.


Diamond also argues that social choices are the key determinant in whether resource problems cause social problems, such as collapse.

Randall Parker said at September 22, 2009 6:50 PM:


In 1950 Rwanda had 2.16 million but in 2005 Rwanda had 9.04 million people. Under colonial rule with a smaller population Rwanda might have been a net exporter. But like many other countries in Africa quality of government has since declined while population exploded. It is not surprising if it became a net importer in the process.

anonyq said at September 23, 2009 5:54 AM:

It was a Belgium colony so i seriously doubt that the quality of government declined since independence.

John Thacker said at September 24, 2009 4:25 PM:

"But like many other countries in Africa quality of government has since declined while population exploded. It is not surprising if it became a net importer in the process."

Ah, but there's the rub. Hunger is caused by poor governance and ignorant economics, not the food technology we have today. With poor governance, even a breadbasket like Zimbabwe has been transformed from a food exporter to an importer, despite population increasing much more slowly than in other countries.

Thanks to Borlaug, we have the technology to feed everyone who exists in the world today. Yes, if you remove certain limits, that does increase the population, which can increase the number of people who might go hungry. Though, at the same time, if that many people go hungry, the population will decrease again.

But your argument (that Borlaug led to more suffering) seems just as consistent as one saying that we should murder people now, to save suffering of the children that they would otherwise have in the future.

Dave F said at September 28, 2009 10:03 AM:

Forget net importers or net exporters. It is an important concept, but frankly, today, most people starving, are starving because their government has decided that they should starve. Not because they have an incompetent government that has made them net importers. The United States and several other countries see that these poor people do not starve (they may not be eating as good as I, but they starve not.) But the mass starvation that exists today is the direct result of malicious human decisions. Think Darfor.

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