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.” 
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 , . 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.
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 . The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that climate-related crop yield declines of 10% to 25% will become more prevalent by 2049 .
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” . Per FAO, 815 million people were undernourished in 2016, up from 777 million in 2015 . Climate change may impoverish another 122 million by 2030 . 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 . 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) . 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 . A similar pilot in Kenya reached over 4,500 farmers . FAO recently launched an ongoing CSA pilot in DR Congo in 2017, which will continue through 2020 . Similar ongoing programs exist in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean .
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…” . 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 . FAO estimates a lower 18% figure . Either way, FAO should promote reduced meat consumption in developed countries as a way to reduce global emissions.
- 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?
 Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London: J. Johnson, in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1798). Chapter VII, Sec. 20. http://www.econlib.org/library/Malthus/malPop3.html, accessed November 2017.
 Arnuf Grubler, Technology and Global Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 348.
 Broadberry, Stephen, Bruce M.S. Campbell, Alexander Klein, Mark Overton and Bas van Leeuwen, British Economic Growth, 1270-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). http://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/history/economic-history/british-economic-growth-12701870?format=PB, accessed November 2017.
 Seung-Ki Min, et al, “Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes,” Nature 470 (17 February 2011): 378-381.
 Anna Mazhirov, “Climate Change to Exacerbate Rising Food Prices”, State of the Planet, Earth Institute of Columbia University. http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2011/03/22/climate-change-to-exacerbate-rising-food-prices/, accessed November 2017.
 Lobell D.B., Schlenker W. and Costa-Roberts J. “Climate trends and global crop production since 1980,” Science, 333 (6042), 616-20 (2011). http://science.sciencemag.org/content/333/6042/616, accessed November 2017.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers”, https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf, accessed November 2017.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017”, http://www.fao.org/state-of-food-security-nutrition/en/, accessed November 2017.
 Gardiner Harris, “Borrowed Time on Disappearing Land,” New York Times, March 28, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/29/world/asia/facing-rising-seas-bangladesh-confronts-the-consequences-of-climate-change.html?_r=0, accessed November 2017.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “MItigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Programme United Republic of Tanzania”, http://www.fao.org/in-action/micca/on-the-ground/africa/united-republic-of-tanzania/en/, accessed November 2017.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “MItigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Programme Kenya”, http://www.fao.org/in-action/micca/on-the-ground/africa/kenya/en/, accessed November 2017.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “MItigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Programme Democratic Republic of Congo”, http://www.fao.org/in-action/micca/on-the-ground/africa/democratic-republic-of-congo/en/, accessed November 2017.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “MItigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Africa”, http://www.fao.org/in-action/micca/on-the-ground/africa/en/, accessed November 2017.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)” (2014), https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter11.pdf, accessed November 2017.
 Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change” World Watch November/December 2009 10-19, https://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf, accessed November 2017.
 Mark Bittman, “FAO Yields to Meat Industry Pressure on Climate Change,” New York Times, July 11, 2012, https://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/11/fao-yields-to-meat-industry-pressure-on-climate-change/, accessed November 2017.