Fighting Malthus’s Prediction in the New Millennium

Fossil-fuel powered mechanized agriculture has led to rapid growth in the food supply and staved off human starvation for over 200 years. Today, climate change, caused by those very fossil fuels, is leading to undernourishment in vulnerable populations. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is fighting this trend.

Fighting Malthus’s prediction in the new millennium

Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” [1]

Thomas Malthus, 1798

In 1798, English economist Thomas Malthus issued a dire prediction: that population growth would outpace growth in the food supply until starvation checked human populations. Mercifully, this forecast failed to pass. The Industrial Revolution’s increases in agricultural mechanization led to dramatic long-term growth in agricultural yields, enough to feed a growing population [2], [3]. In the centuries preceding his statement, wheat yields in Malthus’s home country, Britain, grew very slowly. In the years following the Industrial Revolution, yield growth inflected sharply higher due to mechanized farming, powered by fossil fuels.

England's Crop Yield, 1270-1870

Those same fossil fuels are today driving climate change, contributing to extreme weather such as droughts, a grave threat to global food security [4, 5]. Longer-term, climate change also lowers agricultural yields. A 2011 Science article showed that corn yields declined 3.8% and wheat yields declined 5.5% between 1980 and 2008 due to climate change [6]. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that climate-related crop yield declines of 10% to 25% will become more prevalent by 2049 [7].

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (“FAO“) is today’s anti-Malthus, tasked with eliminating world hunger by 2030. FAO believes that “climate change threatens our ability to achieve global food security” [8]. Per FAO, 815 million people were undernourished in 2016, up from 777 million in 2015 [9]. Climate change may impoverish another 122 million by 2030 [10].  This will primarily hurt those in developing countries, who in a sad irony have contributed the least to climate change, yet stand to lose the most [11]. In order to eliminate hunger, climate change’s impact on the global food supply chain must therefore be addressed.

Feeding the hungry in a warming world

In the last two years, FAO has allocated $129mm to remediating climate change’s impact on food supply chains (25% of FAO’s overall budget) [10]. Key to FAO’s work over the short term is Climate Smart Agriculture (“CSA”), a program designed to develop “technical, policy and investment conditions to achieve sustainable agricultural development for food security under climate change”. Examples of CSA work include a recent pilot in Tanzania training nearly 5,000 farmers on soil and water conservation and zero tillage farming [12]. A similar pilot in Kenya reached over 4,500 farmers [13]. FAO recently launched an ongoing CSA pilot in DR Congo in 2017, which will continue through 2020 [14]. Similar ongoing programs exist in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean [15].

Medium-term FAO projects include facilitating farmers’ access to financing, helping countries develop climate change and disaster readiness plans, and providing knowledge and training across the agricultural supply chain, all with the overall goal of eliminating world hunger by 2030. FAO is also expanding FAOSTAT, FAO’s online food and agriculture data platform [10, 16].

What else should FAO do?

Both local efforts to ameliorate hunger and global efforts to reduce emissions will be necessary if FAO is to truly eliminate hunger by 2030 and defeat Malthus’s prediction once and for all.

Short term, FAO must focus on building agricultural self-sufficiency within the context of a changing climate. Food aid should be used as a last resort to avoid unintentionally crowding out local farmers. The US foreign aid office (USAID) states that “the long-run [effects of food aid] may have significant negative impacts on developing the local markets…” [18]. Training farmers is thus preferable. Given the success of early climate-adaptation training pilots such as those in Tanzania and Kenya [12, 13], these programs should be expanded.

Medium term, FAO should emphasize reducing emissions in the food supply chain, particularly in developed countries. Agriculture is a major producer of greenhouse gases (“GHGs”). Opportunities to slow climate change include reducing emissions per unit of food as well as carbon sequestration (long-term storage of carbon, e.g. in soil or biomass) [17, 10]. Meat in particular contributes to emissions, although to what extent is subject to debate. Worldwatch, an environmental research organization, claimed in 2009 that 51% of global GHG emissions are livestock-related [19]. FAO estimates a lower 18% figure [20]. Either way, FAO should promote reduced meat consumption in developed countries as a way to reduce global emissions.

Open questions:

  • In what ways will technology develop over the coming years to enable farmers to improve yields even in the face of a changing climate?
  • Given the politically fraught nature of questions related to climate change, how should FAO best go about advocating for reduced emissions while remaining apolitical?

(793 words)



[1] Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London: J. Johnson, in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1798). Chapter VII, Sec. 20., accessed November 2017.

[2] Arnuf Grubler, Technology and Global Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003),  p. 348.

[3] Broadberry, Stephen, Bruce M.S. Campbell, Alexander Klein, Mark Overton and Bas van Leeuwen, British Economic Growth, 1270-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)., accessed November 2017.

[4] Seung-Ki Min, et al, “Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes,” Nature 470 (17 February 2011): 378-381.

[5] Anna Mazhirov, “Climate Change to Exacerbate Rising Food Prices”, State of the Planet, Earth Institute of Columbia University., accessed November 2017.

[6] Lobell D.B., Schlenker W. and Costa-Roberts J. “Climate trends and global crop production since 1980,” Science, 333 (6042), 616-20 (2011)., accessed November 2017.

[7] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers”,, accessed November 2017.

[8] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Climate Change”,, accessed November 2017.

[9] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017”,, accessed November 2017.

[10] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “FAO Strategy on Climate Change Rome July 2017”,, accessed November 2017.

[11] Gardiner Harris, “Borrowed Time on Disappearing Land,” New York Times, March 28, 2014,, accessed November 2017.

[12] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “MItigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Programme United Republic of Tanzania”,, accessed November 2017.

[13] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “MItigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Programme Kenya”,, accessed November 2017.

[14] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “MItigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Programme Democratic Republic of Congo”,, accessed November 2017.

[15] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “MItigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Africa”,, accessed November 2017.

[16] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “FAOSTAT”,, accessed November 2017

[17] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)” (2014),, accessed November 2017.

[18] USAID, “Impacts of Food Aid: Niger’s Impending Crisis” (2 April 2010),, accessed November 2017.

[19] Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change” World Watch November/December 2009 10-19,, accessed November 2017.

[20] Mark Bittman, “FAO Yields to Meat Industry Pressure on Climate Change,” New York Times, July 11, 2012,, accessed November 2017.



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8 thoughts on “Fighting Malthus’s Prediction in the New Millennium

  1. The FAO, as a UN entity, represents all of its member states and cannot take political stances. However, it should ensure that its’ efforts dovetail that of individual governments. All too often, international entities end up sponsoring one-off projects or pilot studies (like the ones in Kenya/Tanzania) that are not followed through by local governments. Only if the individual governments buy into the value proposition will these efforts bear fruit. Another point I think is relevant is to preserve crop diversity. In our effort to produce more nutritious/more drought resistant/pest resistant crops, we should not myopically focus on a few species of rice or corn, but instead need to preserve the large existing genetic diversity that may be needed to preserve future crop viability.

  2. Great post! It’s certainly true that climate change is a political hot button for some. Just last week, the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance asked that the US delegation be excluded from the UN climate change talks, since the US decided to leave the Paris Agreement. They have accused the US of trying to sabotage the agreement from inside the talks [1]. With Syria signing the Agreement this week, the US is now the only nation not committed to the Agreement. Interestingly, a second unofficial delegation of politicians and activists from the US attended the talks to reassure other nations that they are committed to lowering emissions. Michael Bloomberg (MBA 1966) who traveled to the talks with the unofficial delegation remarked of the official US delegation “The Trump administration did send a delegation to Bonn – it might be the first climate conference where coal is being promoted as an example of sustainability. It will also likely be the last. The world is moving on and so is the United States” [2]. The FAO needs to continue their efforts to provide unbiased scientific data and solutions to climate change issues. The politicians will have to follow.


  3. Adam, this is a great and thought-provoking post! What a fascinating (if depressing) paradox. I agree that FAO should build self-sufficiency among farmers without relying on food aid, and to simultaneously help implement solutions that reduce carbon emissions in the food supply chain. In addition to these efforts, I wonder whether addressing issues of food wastage could help prevent Malthus’s prediction from materializing. According to the World Food Programme, the world technically produces enough food to feed our population, but a third of the food that we produce is wasted and never consumed. [1] While producing that wasted food is energy intensive and contributes to the very problems that you write about, I am curious about whether there is an opportunity to transport these food/agro surpluses to regions with food shortages. Perhaps we can even use emerging clean technology (drones? electric cars?) to do so. I agree that such an approach should stop short of food aid, but it could be effective where food scarcity is a function of poor distribution channels, and not necessarily supply. Thanks for writing about this issue!


  4. Adam – I enjoyed reading this article and was intrigued by the notion that “the long-run [effects of food aid] may have significant negative impacts on developing the local markets…” This reminds me of the adage that says if you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, he will be able to earn for a lifetime. However, it’s important to think about the short term trade-offs in lives saved or slightly improved by utilizing the overproduction and waste of food we seen in more developed countries. Furthermore, a question that came to mind is should we be considering teaching affected individuals other skills than farming to mitigate the risk of reduced arable land on their financial well-being.

    While I agree that attacking this problem is important, there will presumably be a challenge convincing the leaders of developing economies to think about more sustainable practices when the US and Europe was already greatly benefited from fossil fuel use without much push back until now.

  5. I think this is a great post, Adam. It is definitely a very big topic (in terms of importance and sheer size of research/ literature behind it), and I think you have summarized many parts of it very well.

    One area that was missed in this post is the non-environmental factors that cause famine. There is a large body of research that shows that famines are often not caused (or only caused) by food under-production or environmental disasters. Often, even during these famines, enough food is produced (even within the locale of the famine); however, the food is not equitably distributed to those in need [1]. This speaks to one of your open questions – I do not think we necessarily need technology to improve yields. We need technology/ intervention to ensure equitable supply from those with more food than they need to those who need food.

    To answer the other one of your open questions – I don’t think it is possible for the FAO (or any organization) to be truly apolitical. Even the statement “this is not political” is in itself a political statement (many UN organizations may argue that they are purely driven by objective science and are ‘technocratic’ – again, this is a political statement). In my view, the role of the UN is to ensure the future survival of the world. To do so, the FAO and other UN bodies need to take a strong stance against global warming. I think the world as a whole believes in the importance of combatting global warming; the key challenge is in ensuring each government agrees to stringent regulations.


  6. Important issue as others have noted. It’s worth noting that emissions present a bit of a paradox: on the one hand, higher levels of CO2 have been shown to cause plants to grow faster and increase yields – helpful in feeding the world’s hungry – but it may also be the case that emissions are stripping plants of critical nutrients – sometimes to the tune of a 10% reduction in things like iron and protein [1]. And of course, as you note, excessive emissions can cause warmer temperatures that in turn reduce yields.

    In terms of the FAO’s actions, do you think there is scope to help make the agricultural supply chain more efficient? It’s my understanding that in some emerging markets, the transportation of crops to market and prices paid to farmers are both controlled by powerful middlemen, ultimately leading to wastage and less sustainable revenues for the farmers [2]. Does technology have a role to play – perhaps in providing farmers with remote education around things like crop rotation, and data around crop prices and seasonal trends, so they can better adjust their planting patterns to maximize revenue and sustainability?


  7. Many astute commenters have raised alternate ways in which climate change has impacted agricultural production, as well as other practical issues that contribute to famine. On a related note, I wonder what other investments the FAO is prioritizing in addition to remediating climate change’s impact on agricultural supply chains. While this post articulates a reasonable case for why the FAO should increase its investment in this field, I’m curious what budget trade-offs such change necessitates. Furthermore, I’d also question, in the short-term, the scalability and value of expanding the mentioned pilot programs.

  8. Adam – well done. Very interesting and sobering piece about how climate change is impacting global food security. The line that struck me most came at the end of the first section: “This will primarily hurt those in developing countries, who in a sad irony have contributed the least to climate change, yet stand to lose the most [11].” Very sad but true.

    I agree with your conclusion that we need to address climate change if we want to have a handle on feeding the world’s population. Ironically, it seems that most of FAO’s focus is “reactionary” to climate change – e.g., helping farmers adapt to the environmental changes. While I applaud the FAO’s efforts and the fact that they are putting 25% of their budget behind this, I worry that their plans do not address the root causes of climate change. I wonder if their efforts are sufficient… Will they be able to meet their aggressive goal of eliminating world hunger by 2030? Something I’d love to have seen included in the piece is an explanation of how the FAO is measuring success of these programs and how well the programs are performing to date.

    Finally, I love your point that the FAO should work to reduce emissions in the global supply chain. This is exactly the type of proactive approach I’d like to see them take!

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