October 04, 2009
More Land Switching Into Human Food Production

Writing in Scientific American David Biello presents the case that Thomas Malthus might be right after all.

MALTHUSIAN DILEMMA: How to feed a human population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 while also grappling with poverty as well as climate change, dead zones, biodiversity loss and other environmental ills?

These problems won't all be solved. Technological advances will feed more humans while more species go extinct. Humans are not going to stop making babies so that orangutans or bonobo chimps can survive in the wild.

By 2050, the world will host nine billion people—and that's if population growth slows in much of the developing world. Today, at least one billion people are chronically malnourished or starving. Simply to maintain that sad state of affairs would require the clearing (read: deforestation) of 900 million additional hectares of land, according to Pedro Sanchez, director of the Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program at The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

We are shifting more land into agricultural production and out-competing more species in the process. Land that used to support them now supports us.

"Agriculture is the main driver of most ecological problems on the planet," said economist Jeffrey Sachs, Scientific American columnist and Earth Institute director. "We are literally eating away the other species on the planet."

I think 6.6 billion people are enough. I do not see any personal benefit to myself from adding billions more humans to the planet. Rather, I see net costs. Look at pollution. The more people pollution the less pollution each can generate. But industrialization of previously undeveloped countries is increasing the amount of pollution per person while the total number of people keeps going up.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 October 04 11:41 PM  Trends Habitat Loss

ScottN said at October 5, 2009 6:53 AM:

Of course you think 6.6 billion is enough. You are one of them, not one of the 2.4 billion that you say should not exist.

John said at October 5, 2009 8:02 AM:

"Today, at least one billion people are chronically malnourished or starving. Simply to maintain that sad state of affairs would require the clearing (read: deforestation) of 900 million additional hectares of land"

This viewpoint assumes the reason people are malnourished or starving is scarcity. I think that is an unproven assumption, and that there is plenty of evidence that political, military, institutional and economic policy decisions are more responsible.

Black Death said at October 5, 2009 8:40 AM:

Just about every problem we face today is made worse by overpopulation - unemployment, global warming, peak oil, pollution, habitat destruction, etc. It is a mystery to me why 9 billion people on this planet are better than 6 billion, or even fewer. First World countries have mostly brought their populations under control - the boom is occuring in the Third World. Most of these "new people" are facing a grim future - a life span greatly shortened by starvation, disease and endemic warfare. Population migration from the Third World to the First World will make the problems worse, since First Worlders use resources at a greater per capita rate. Immigration (legal and illegal) into highly developed countries needs to be drastically curtailed. The second half of the 21st century will see massive population losses in poor countries, as their populations are brought into line with the carrying capacity of their ecosystems. When oil prices exceed $120/bbl, agriculture in the Third World will be reduced to subsistence levels.

Since overpopulation is the engine that drives pollution, habitat destruction and the loss of endangered species, one might expect that the tree-huggers would be out in front on this one. Unfortunately, this is not the case - for example, the Sierra Club long ago sold out on the immigration/overpopulation issue:


Increasingly, First World countries need to view themselves as lifeboats of survivors afloat in a sea of drowning victims. Of, course, the people outside the lifeboats will try to climb aboard in order to save themselves, but if this allowed to happen, the lifeboats will be overfilled, and all will be lost. With storms on the horizon (e.g., peak oil), the lifeboats will need lots of buoyancy and plenty of strong hands at the oars in order to survive.

There is probably little that will be done to avoid the coming catastrophe. Most Third World countries have corrupt, despotic governments that could care less about these problems. Even democratic countries such as India do little (interestingly, the totalitarian Chinese government is one of the major exceptions). Gifts of food, medicine and agricultural implements by affluent countries only make the problem worse. Aid to Third World countries should probably be withheld until they bring their population growth under control, otherwise nothing really changes.

kurt9 said at October 5, 2009 8:45 AM:

Real resource limits of planet Earth:


David Govett said at October 5, 2009 8:53 AM:

I can't wait to taste food made with nanotechnology. Seriously.

Mandrake said at October 5, 2009 9:19 AM:

Any of you overpopulation freaks who want to jump off the train but lack the funds to buy a means of egress, the rest of us could take a collection. Or we could simply loan the proper implements of self destruction to you freakazoids, and collect them after use.
Some have used cyanide koolaid. Some have used firearms and edged blades. Your choice, of course. The rest of us stand ready to oblige.

David A. Young said at October 5, 2009 9:22 AM:

Individuals are the neurons in the Mind of Humanity. I don't believe you can have too many neurons.

The problems we face now are mostly due to the fact that this Mind is poorly integrated. Too many neurons are out of the loop. I believe this will change.

Brian Wang said at October 5, 2009 12:26 PM:

I did not think I would have to copy a posting that I made against doomers on theoildrum who are pro-sterilization genocide and who call Borlaug evil or a sinner but apparently I do.

Here is the case why food productivity is going up and there will be enough food for people and that economic growth has been happening in Africa and I believe will continue.


Opponents of high-yield agriculture "took the numbers for water pollution caused by fertilizer runoff in the United States and applied them to Africa, which is totally fallacious," David Seckler says. "Chemical-fertilizer use in Africa is so tiny you could increase application for decades before causing the environmental side effects we see here. Meanwhile, Africa is ruining its wildlife habitat with slash-and-burn farming, which many commentators romanticize because it is indigenous."

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

Since Ehrlich's dire predictions in 1968, India's population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold.

1997, Privatization and dwarf rice have enabled China to raise rice yields rapidly to about 1.6 tons per acre -- close to the world's best figure of two tons.

In 1997, Lester Brown, the head of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental organization, fears that China may soon turn from an agricultural success story into a nation of shortages.

In 2008, Modern rice grows in 110-140 days, produces 100 seeds per panicle, and yields between 2.4 and 4.0 tons per acre.

By the year 2020 it is believed the world's rice crop will increase by an additional 60 percent. Current dwarf varieties have 15 productive panicles, or seed clusters per stalk (out 25 or so total stalks) that produce about 100 grains (seeds) each. New strains will have fewer, but stronger and thicker, stalks that will yield 200 or more grains each. These new plants are expected to account for most of the increased productivity.

Africa is getting wealthier. there is progress being made to lift most people out of extreme poverty by 2020 and further progress beyond that seems likely as Africa and India follow China to reasonable per capita prosperity (as China followed Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and other southeast asian countries.

Africa Has Had About 6% Annual GDP Growth and 3% per Capita GDP Growth Since 2001.

In 2009, the economic crisis has hurt growth but much of Africa is heading back to 4-5% growth in 2010 and probably back to 6% growth in 2011 onwards.

I am projecting Africa 2050 to look like china 2010.

Africa's total population is about 1 billion. The ten largest countries have about two thirds of the population.

Country        2009   2010  2011  2012  2013  2014   Population  
Nigeria      1,108 1,200 1,264 1,334 1,405 1,480    155 million 
Ethiopia       427   442   459   475   500   538     85 million 
Egypt        2,456 2,610 2,860 3,130 3,337 3,634     81 million 
Congo          173   182   194   205   220   246     66 million
South Africa  4,943 5,014 5,207 5,456 5,744 6,031     49 million
Tanzania        538   568   600   643   690   740     44 million
Sudan         1,334 1,511 1,690 1,847 2,026 2,160     42 million
Kenya           829   993 1,148 1,256 1,356 1,474     40 million
Algeria       3,640 4,064 4,357 4,630 4,893 5,073     35 million
Morocco       2,655 2,802 2,991 3,211 3,449 3,689     32 million

Africa 1.28 trillion GDP nominal in 2009
Africa 1.5 trillion GDP nominal in 2008
Africa population 1 billion 2010

PPP per capita
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
China 6,379 6,786 7,413 8,202 9,089 10,044

nominal GDP per capita
China 3,622 3,915 4,301 4,756 5,260 5,913

Africa 3% GDP per capita improvement over 40 years
24 years double per capita. next 16 years another 60%. so 3.2 times 2009 level.
3.2 * $1300 per capita = $4160 per capita. (about China 2010/2011)

Africa 6% GDP per year improvement over 40 years
I expect Africa population to slow the pace of population growth.

The trendline has not been total hellhole.
Look at the trends since 1994.

The same methods for make plants tough enough to grow on the Moon and Mars can be used to make plants that can grow in the desert. Waterproof sand helps conserve 75% of the water used for irrigation. Genetically engineered plants and waterproof sand can transform the deserts of the world and the lives of people who depend on water and food from currently inhospitable land.
An ambitious project to re-engineer photosynthesis in rice, led by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) through a global consortium of scientists, has received a grant of US$11 million over 3 years from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As a result of research being conducted by this group, rice plants that can produce 50% more grain using less, fertilizer and less water are a step closer to reality.

topsoil solutions


topsoil, fertilizer and water improvement

Wonder tree

Dennis Garrity, the Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, highlighted some of the centre's most recent research, which is designed to increase maize production in Africa by up to four times by planting trees that act as organic fertilizers.

The congress also emphasized how tree-planting can provide farmers with everything from nuts and fruits to windbreaks, erosion control, and fuel for heating, timber for housing and fertilizer to improve much needed food security.

Borlaug led team at the National Academy of science that had three part study that cataloged the diversity of native african crops that could be used for further agricultural productivity



Bottom line: 10+ billion is sustainable based on the technology.

For those who said we should have limited population or should limit population -- how do you propose to implement this in some detail ? It seems like this would take a world war 3 to achieve. Population limitation is a messy business. China did it as a temporary several decade measure, but those limitations are being lifted and were not strictly followed for a while.

Black Death said at October 5, 2009 12:27 PM:

"Individuals are the neurons in the Mind of Humanity. I don't believe you can have too many neurons."

Interesting.... Do we need more neurons in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa, where the average IQ is in the low 70's?

JAY said at October 5, 2009 2:41 PM:

There are more people than ever before and they are getting fatter. It doesn't sound like we have a malnourishment problem.

chris said at October 5, 2009 3:15 PM:

The problem is that most of the billions we've added are useless low-IQ types. A couple hundred million more Japanese or Swedes would be great for the world, imagine the improved technologies and medicines they would invent. A billion more ignorant Muslims ... not so much. And name a single high-tech company to come out of the billion sub-Saharan Africans.

At least Japan has the sense to keep the ignorant hordes out of their country.

Doug said at October 5, 2009 3:43 PM:

As usual, interesting but uncivil comments. Oh well.

My two cents' worth:

1. Resources are finite, and utilization is growing. Recycling is of limited helpfulness.

2. Ability of technological innovation and refinement of existing technologies to enhance food production is limited. possibilities of sudden collapse in fisheries, or blight affecting grain staple crops are significant.

3. Ability of third world cultures in foreseeable future to govern themselves wisely (by standards of Western, i.e. US/UK stable pluralistic governments with limited powers and relatively less corruption) is extremely doubtful.

4. Impending crisis in infection control as antibiotics become ineffective against super-germs is horrifying. Couple this with continuing HIV epidemic, it's worse.

Conclusion: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are tightening their saddle girths.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2009 6:39 PM:


Think this thru about the 2.4 billion. At this point they do not exist. They can't be killed. They can't be tortured. They can't go hungry. They can't be happy. They can't be sad. They do not exist. If they never exist then their rights can not be violated.

David A. Young, I have a hard time with this claim of yours about humans as neurons:

The problems we face now are mostly due to the fact that this Mind is poorly integrated. Too many neurons are out of the loop. I believe this will change.

Very few people really create wealth.

Well, our problems haven't gotten any less severe as over 800 million people have started using the internet. The people who use this medium to do constructive work are really statistical outliers.

The biggest use of the internet is porn. I've had to advise a friend (sucessfully!) how to get her son to kick his addictive and huge use of World Of Warcraft. Lots more still waste their time that way. In fact, a small fraction of the people given the opportunity to communicate cheaply and easily via web sites or instant messaging have used this opportunity in order to learn nuclear engineering, agricultural sciences, chemistry, architectural engineering, or assorted other things that can help advance the human race.


To the people who are hungry the experience of their daily life is definitely one of scarcity. To the people whose countries are turning into deserts due to overgrazing and overfarming the outlook is definitely one of continued scarcity.

We have more hungry people today than were alive in 1803.

But I think you and a few other commenters have missed the point of the original post: We are out-competing the other species on the planet. If some countries miraculously get more brains and better governments they'll succeed in putting more land under till. That'll increase human food supply.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2009 7:08 PM:

Brian Wang,

I do not think you really responded to the thrust of my post: We are competing with nature and cutting down the amount of wild habitat.

I agree we are going to see lots more industrialization. I agree agricultural science and technology will continue to advance. I agree that we'll ramp up nukes, solar, and wind as energy sources. But is that going to decrease land usage? I do not see that happening.

What's the trend? More land usage in spite of more technology. That's happening very dramatically in Brazil, New Guinea, Indonesia, and other tropical countries. More land to grow more food, more biofuels, more wood, more cotton. More land to build highways, second homes, dams.

kurt9 said at October 5, 2009 7:44 PM:

Brian Wang,

Nice posting. I like it. However, like the Oil Drum website, I would not expect level-headed response to it. You bring too much factual information. Stop making sense.

FYI, John McCarthy (AI researcher at Stanford) published his website on long term sustainability in 1995.


His website has not been updated since then. It might be worth while to do an updated version of his presentation.

Flash Program said at October 5, 2009 8:10 PM:

Even most people of the first world still lack the resources to live the rich life, this must change. No matter the technology the more resources available per individual the more an individual can do. Greater freedom depends on greater resources(right now greater resources allow access to a richer repertoire of experiences + more time due to more freedom, from work being optional. Eventually as we enhance our minds, the quality of our sensory experience, and the capacity of our mind will depend on computational resources, the more the richer the senses, and the more powerful our mind will be, not to mention the higher the quality of our simulated environments.).

I do not see it as acceptable that my possible quality of life, nor my possible freedom, should be diminished due to the irresponsible excessive reproduction of individuals. Way I see it, the only way to increase freedom eventually will be to diminish the population. Clearly this will require extremely low birth rates once aging is cured later this century(barring some unforeseen disaster.).

Of course there are individuals who will not opt for transcending human limitations with technology, freeing the minds from the shackles of mortality and its limited intellectual & sensory capacity, but their choice, of slavery(leaving their minds bound to the chains of their frail natural bodies.), should not impinge on the freedom of others.

Barring some unforeseen impediment, it seems obligatory work for subsistence will be abolished this century. Thus providing greater freedom by making work optional. But even automated energy|matter transformations into food|physical-items|computation have limits due to finite resources. Even colonization of the rest of the galaxy, comes into question, when one realizes such resources(say fusion materials) could be gathered in an automated fashion and used to provide either greater freedom(resources=energy|matter|computation) or extend the lifespan of civilization as much as possible at the highest level of affluence|freedom per individual(if the expansion of the universe stops accelerating, it could be a really really long time.).

Brian Wang said at October 5, 2009 11:36 PM:

The post mentions Malthus might be right and he problem of 9 billion people is mentioned twice and Randall mentions that 6.6 billion people are enough. Seems like at least half of the paragraphs are about not being able to handle that many people. My points were that we can handle that many people.

2008 4.0 tons of rice per acre. 2020 60% more rice per acre. So if people were eating the same amount of rice per capita then we could feed 60% more people with the same acreage for agriculture.

In terms of the billions of more people not "adding to the planet", that was where I provided the evidence that Africa was developing and gettings its economic act together. An economic together place has an educated populace.

Lastly, I was asking how the question of "more people or too many people" should be addressed. Randall are you suggesting something other than the apparent default situation where we are already at 6.8 billion [the 6.6 billion figure is old, I will refrain from asking what to do with the 200 million] and heading to about 9 billion by 2050.

I would say that nothing can be ethically done or should be done over the next few decades. Over the next two decades I am pretty sure we will have success with nuclear fusion (IEC fusion, focus fusion/dense plasma, colliding beam in reverse field configuration) and molecular nanotechnology. I also argue for cities 2.0 on my site (vertical farming, renewed look at domed cities etc..), I believe that this would be a way to make higher density, more productive and more liveable cities. Super-tech means that we can live and work and easily travel offworld. Plus I had already mentioned the ability to genetically engineer crops to grow on Mars and the moon (and asteroids). We can revive deserts etc...

Fusion would get rid of all the pollution problems, it would mean the energy to clean up water, air etc... (desalination) etc... If we get energy that is 5-50 times cheaper than now then we have massive economic growth.

We won't really be able to do much to change the path until we can do practically everything.

Engineer-Poet said at October 6, 2009 4:41 AM:

The point about the lack of sub-Saharan high-tech companies is spot on.  The only way that Africa 2050 will resemble China 2010 is if China colonizes Africa, which it is beginning to do.  At least it will cause an increase in average world IQ.

David Govett said at October 6, 2009 10:02 AM:

FYI, Japan's carrying capacity (the number of people it could support without importing food) is about 35 million, so 90 million Japanese live on imported food, though the Japanese population is declining slowly.

Nick G said at October 6, 2009 3:58 PM:

Randall, a couple of thoughts.

First, just because a lot of people use the internet for entertainment (of dubious mental health) doesn't mean that the internet isn't also promoting education. What % of paper books is textbook, vs romance novels and other entertainment?

2nd, just because overpopulation amplifies resource consumption doesn't mean that population is a useful thing to focus on. We humans are pretty good at consuming resources (habitat, land, other species, oil, etc) in a non-renewable way, and that excess consumption would only take a little longer to reach limits from a long-term point of view. We need to, and can, reduce our per-capita consumption of non-renewable resources much, much faster than we can reduce our population.

For instance, one can reduce one's gasoline consumption by 60% in the time it takes to trade in a 20MPG SUV (the average) for a Prius. One can reduce one's coal consumption by 10% just by changing all of one's incandescent bulbs to CFL - that takes an hour or two? One can immediately reduce one's land for food consumption by 10% by cutting out one meat meal per week (how much land does a Starbuck's latte per week require for coffee beans?). How long would it take to reduce world population by 10%, or 60%?

MaskedMan said at October 6, 2009 4:42 PM:


This is exactly why Next Big Future is my favorite futurist site to read every day!

Mathusians are only out there to help big government control the masses.

Randall Parker said at October 6, 2009 6:32 PM:


One needs to stay realistic about human nature when prognosticating. In theory a lot of things are possible with wise management and wise, educated, smart, motivated populaces. But then there's the world we live in.

Technology and capital accumulation widen the gaps between the poorest and richest. That happens between countries and within countries. Technology does become so cheap and reliable that even the backward mismanaged countries end up having cell phone service. So for that reason we can expect some rise in living standards in, for example, Africa.

In theory we could reduce the footprint of agriculture by building fusion reactors to crack water and use the hydrogen with carbon and oxygen to make large quantities of carbohydrates with little or no farm land. I can imagine just as well as you can fantastic future technologies and how we can use them. But the market tends to choose what is cheap. So, for example, Caterpillar tractors are exported to Africa and New Guinea to push into pristine forests to allow loggers to tear down vast forests, driving species to extinction in the process.

Once living standards get boosted up by cheap fusion energy (and I won't hazard a guess as to which decade will witness that development) will poorer countries use that cheap energy as a substitute for resources that come from destroying nature? Or will they use that energy to help destroy nature so that billions of people can each live in their own 10,000 square foot mansion with guest house, pool, long drive ways, and robotic lawn care for massive lawns?

Technology by itself will not solve all the world's problems or soon enough. Soon enough was 30 years ago.

Steve said at October 12, 2009 10:23 PM:

From McCarthy's "Sustainability of Human Progress" web page:

"We also argue that maintaining material progress is the highest priority..."

Because it's not important to have a world with anything but rats, cockroaches, seagulls, and Asian carp in it - so long as we can all keep living in suburbs and driving to the jobs we hate so we can buy more electronic toys and afford the 30 year mortgage on that 4br mock Tudor.

Right away we can see the moral bankruptcy of the cornucopians, who insist, against all economic evidence, that material comforts guarantee happiness. If all we need is more stuff, why do people pay so much more money to own properties on the beach? Next to parks and wilderness? Large enough not to see neighbors? This argument fails trivially.

McCarthy even admits it himself: "I suspect that population will eventually be limited by a sense of crowdedness rather than by material considerations."

That's what the population argument is about: QUALITY OF LIFE. Another starving illiterate in Sub-Saharan Africa or the slums of Calcutta does not "add neurons", as David naively claims. In fact, they subtract neurons, because the rest of us must spend time and energy competing against them for basic resources.

Only people who have the leisure time to do something besides compete against 7 million others for a chance at life can add to human knowledge. The lower the human population versus the Earth's carrying capacity, the faster humanity can advance.

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