Is humanity moving towards cannibalism as a result of food shortages due to overpopulation? Worried environmentalist Paul Ehrlich’s statement that “We will soon be asking is it perfectly okay to eat the bodies of your dead because we’re all so hungry” is disturbing, but it is also dead wrong.
Ehrlich has been wrong for much of his long career. Most famously, he predicted that hundreds of millions would die of starvation in the 1970s—ironically, just around the time that plant scientists were actually beginning to solve the problem with the Green Revolution.
For the first Earth Day in April 1970, Ehrlich predicted a United States decimated by hunger by the year 2000. He foresaw a country of just 23 million inhabitants surviving on fewer calories (2400 per day) than the average African gets today. In reality, the U.S. today supports more than 300 million people who consume an average of about 3600 calories per person per day.
These days, Ehrlich is hawking a new book in which he argues that scarcity of resources will become so severe that humans will need to drastically change their eating habits and agricultural practices. In one particularly eye-catching claim, he predicts we’ll have to start eating our dead. He even adds that humanity is “moving in that direction with a ridiculous speed.”
Of course, he is wrong – again. The graph below shows the upward trend of calorie availability since 1961. The data comes from actual experts at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. It clearly shows: we’re not running out of food.
However, we do have work to do. We still need to relieve about 850 million people globally of hunger. But this is not because of a lack of food; it is because these people are too poor to afford proper nutrition.
The key to solving hunger is to ease the poverty that causes it. Getting people out of poverty requires more free trade, more technology, and more access to affordable energy. Unfortunately, Ehrlich, in his misplaced worry, displays indifference toward or actively works against all of these things.
Instead of preaching vaguely apocalyptic scenarios, we should help make cheaper food more widely available to those who need it.
A new Green Revolution?
For the Copenhagen Consensus, some of the world’s top economists have found that agricultural R&D is one of the smartest ways to spend money and do good in the world. An extra 8 billion dollars invested annually in research and development would increase yields and decrease prices, allowing billions to spend less of their scarce resources on food. And for every dollar invested in agricultural R&D, we’d see a direct benefit of at least 18 dollars. By developing varieties that are more robust and heat-resistant, we can reduce the likelihood of hunger catastrophes.
A Green Revolution 2.0 could mean that by mid-century, 200 million fewer people would go hungry. All without wasting any thought on Ehrlich’s cannibalistic fantasies.
Read more in this column Bjørn Lomborg: Cross the Street!