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Agriculture truly is 'glorious summer'

The Population Bomb tried to stir up the “winter of our discontent," but agriculture has managed to fight off those predictions of peril.

Now is the winter of our discontent… I’m probably the last person you should ask about Shakespeare. However, I do know that sardonic opening line from Richard III is often quoted.

What’s more, it’s seemingly a fitting metaphor. May marks the 50th anniversary of The Population Bomb. The book was Paul Ehrlich’s warning to the world; the winter of discontent was coming because there wouldn’t be enough food for all of us. 

The cover proclaimed that, “While you are reading these words four people will have died from starvation. Most of them children.” Ehrlich believed, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” And he explained that, “It now seems inevitable that death through starvation will be at least one factor in the coming increase in the death rate.” Ehrlich wasn’t alone in making such dire predictions.

At the time, the United Nations was sounding the same alarm –- agriculture won’t be able to keep up. The FAO’s 1968 report on The State of Food and Agriculture declared that, “It is necessary, therefore, to redouble efforts to slow down the growth of population, for if this chance is missed demand could quite soon begin to outstrip supplies once again.” As a result, many of us grew up hearing, at least to some degree, ominous predictions about food (and oil) shortages in the years to come.

For some reference, the world’s population in 1968 totaled roughly 3.5 billion people. Fifty years later the global population has grown over two-fold and now equals about 7.6 billion people (equivalent to an annual growth rate of 1.56%). Admittedly, population growth has slowed since its peak rate during the four decades between 1950 and 1990; yet, population growth remains persistent. My guess is Ehrlich’s bandwagon, when his book was first released, would have deemed feeding 7.5 billion people an impossibility.

During the past 50 years, though, agricultural advancements have been nothing short of incredible. Nowhere is that more evident than in the nation’s corn fields. U.S. corn yield in 1968 was 79.5 bu./acre, last year’s crop established a new yield record at 176.6 bu./acre. In between, the yield trendline is relentless.

Or consider the world’s wheat supply now surpasses 1 billion metric tons -- nearly 60% larger versus 30 years ago -– all the while serving a population that’s grown by over 2.5 billion people during that time frame. Persistent improvements have enabled farmers to easily keep pace with population growth.

However, advancements in food production haven’t yielded quantitative benefits alone. There’s also been a very real qualitative benefit that’s occurred in the past 50 years. For example, we can now buy fresh bananas in Pittsburgh amidst a winter snowstorm (a column I wrote several years ago). New food choices abound: natural, organic, non-GMO, and gluten-free options are now commonplace. Best of all, just several weeks ago my daughter came home telling me about her friend’s lunch conversation that revolved around Cotton Candy grapes –- who saw that coming?

All this reminds me of Mark Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist. He addresses Ehrlich’s (and others’) pattern of overarching pessimism -– a worldview that is correct only IF the world continues as is… That’s a broken assumption:

“The fashionable reason for pessimism changed, but the pessimism was constant. In the 1960s the population explosion and global famine were top of the charts, in the 1970s the exhaustion of resources, in the 1980s acid rain, in the 1990s pandemics, in the 2000s global warming. One by one these scares came and (all but the last) went. Were we just lucky?… The pessimists’ mistake is extrapolationism; assuming that the future is just a bigger version of the past.”

That’s precisely where Ehrlich went wrong.

He underestimated the power of human ingenuity and mistakenly assumed agriculture wouldn’t be able to innovate and advance. The result would be starvation of epic proportion. But in fact, just the opposite has occurred –- this past decade has witnessed the most marked decline in mortality due to famine across the globe.

Back to Richard: “Now is the winter of our discontent,” represents only part of the story. See, the line that follows is one we often overlook: “Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Of course, there’s more to Richard’s soliloquy than just those two sentences –- they do, however, provide apt contrast for where we choose to focus.

The Population Bomb tried to stir up the “winter of our discontent.” Agriculture, though, managed to fight off those predictions of peril, and that success is likely to advance in the future with even greater precision. Thanks to agriculture, there truly is a “glorious summer” enabling us all to be better off.

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