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Malthus, Ehrlich and other doomsayers still wrong about global starvation

- Thursday, February 18, 2016

The latest agricultural outlook reports produced by the USDA, the FAO and others paint a picture of a world in which there is a growing oversupply of grain, where global grain production constantly exceeds previous records, and in which the number of people suffering starvation is steadily declining. It seems that Thomas Malthus, Paul R Ehrlich and even present day doomsayers like Bob Carr constantly underestimate the ability of the world's farmers to increase output, given the right market signals.

The latest agricultural outlook report produced by the US Department of Agriculture highlighted that over recent years there has been record and growing production of most of the main grains, with the consequence that global grain stocks are increasing, and grain prices are lower than they have been since the depth of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. This coincides with reports from the FAO identifying that the numbers of people suffering hunger in 2015 dropped below 800 million, the lowest it has been since monitoring began in 1990. At the same time, the FAO reports that global cereal stocks have again increased, and the market in the US in particular has responed by lowering the price of wheat.

Despite the claims of various doomsayers subsequent to the global soft commodity price spike in 2007-08, the period of relatively high global grain prices since that time has stimulated increased grain production by farmers worldwide, and the result is pretty clear to see in the very significant production increase that has occurred since 2007-08. 

Once again, the old adage "nothing fixes high prices like high prices" has proved to be correct. What is also interesting is that the increases in output have not involved the utilisation of large amounts of additional land and water - they have largely been achieved through productivity gains associated with the adoption of new technology by farmers - despite the demonisation of many of these technologies by some commentators.

The fascination the media have with doomsayers, and the reluctance to report good news (who knew global hunger has been trending downwards for most of the last two decades?) was on display again this week when former NSW Premier Bob Carr again voiced his opposition to Australia's immigration policies (and hence population policies), and was given plenty of unchallenged coverage. One of the reasons Bob Carr gave for drastically reducing immigration and limiting the Australian population was; 

"We've got acute environmental restraints given the special features of this continent, including at the top of the list I think, the very erratic rainfall patterns and our thin soils."

Mr. Carr has perhaps forgotten that current Australian agricultural output is already sufficient to feed at least sixty million people, and probably more. More than two thirds of the total food produced in Australia is currently exported each year, so it is conceivable that from a food supply perspective (without needing imports) Australia could support a population of sixty million without needing to utilise any extra land or water. In fact, over the last twenty years the total volume of Australian farm output has increased by approximately 25%, while total land used for farming has decreased by twenty three percent, the total area of land cropped has remained static, and agricultural water use has also declined by between ten and fifteen percent. Even the most recent State of the Environment report published in 2011 agreed that the sustainability of the agriculture sector had improved over recent decades.

Despite this, Bob Carr's assertions go unchallenged, and his comments receive the same prominence that was once afforded to Malthus, Ehrlich and some of the latter day doomsayers - all of whom have proved to be incredibly incorrect in their analysis and conclusions. 

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