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The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World

By Joel K. Bourne Jr

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The quest to feed a growing population is as fundamental to the human condition as breathing or walking upright. After the first farmers domesticated plants in Mesopotamia, humans as a species took off. Population growth and agricultural production have been locked in a never-ending tango ever since. Every agricultural advance — the domestication of plants, the domestication of livestock, irrigation, wet-rice cultivation, the use of legumes in crop rotations —has led to an increase in population, if not an outright explosion. When populations outgrew their ability to feed themselves, hunger exacted its toll until a new food source was found, technology improved, new lands were conquered, or the number of mouths to feed declined.

Numerous early scholars noted the relationship between population growth and available food supplies, including Confucius, Plato, and the author of Ecclesiastes. But it wasn’t until the very end of the eighteenth century that a young British scholar attempted to describe exactly how that relationship worked. For his troubles, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus became the father of modern demography — the study of populations — and one of the most hated scientists in history.

On an autumn day raw enough to color the cheeks of the ruddiest Englishman, I hopped on the London tube to visit the British Library at St. Pancras and see for myself the book that scholars have been arguing over for nearly two centuries. The blurred letters on the cracked red leather spine read simply, “Essay on Population,” a truncation of the unwieldy title An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. The author was anonymous, and it was dated June 7, 1798.

The meat of the argument appears in the first chapter: I think I may fairly make two postulates. First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state …
Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second. By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere; and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.

We now know the writer was a mild, unmarried, 32-year-old curate of a small rural chapel in Surrey who was still living at home with his parents and unmarried sisters. But he was far from a simple country vicar. Despite a cleft palate and a harelip, Malthus cut a dashing figure on campus. He wore his blond curls long instead of in a wig as was the fashion, and he spent his free time riding horses, hunting, and voraciously reading the leading thinkers of his day, from Newton to Adam Smith. Malthus showed obvious academic talent, especially in mathematics. But the master of Jesus College tried to dissuade him from a career in the clergy because he felt Malthus’s speech problems would prevent him from rising through the ranks of the Church of England. Malthus assured the clergyman that all he needed was a simple country church to be happy.

Fate, however, intervened. He graduated in 1788 just as a series of bad grain harvests and rising food prices were ravaging the impoverished citizens of France. The resulting bread riots, led by women who demanded “just” prices from the bakers, helped ignite the French Revolution, which set ablaze the philosophical landscape of Europe.

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