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July 17, 2008
In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus argued that human population growth eventually would outstrip Earth’s capacity to support humankind, leading to mass starvation. Following that tradition, several prognosticators from the 1960s and 1970s predicted that a growing population would lead to increasing natural resource scarcity and rising commodity prices, causing severe environmental degradation and mass starvation in the near future. The evidence shows, however, that the doomsayers have been wrong on nearly every count. According to a recent United Nations report: “The global economy grew at 5.4 percent in 2006 … The population grew 1.1 percent, increasing the average world per capita income by 4.3 percent. At this rate, world poverty will be cut in by more than half between 2000 and 2015.”
Among the most popular claims of the doomsayers is that population will outstrip our capacity to grow food, but history has proved them wrong.
• Per capita grain supplies have increased by more than 22 percent since 1950, and food prices have dropped, indicating abundance, not greater scarcity.
• Wheat prices have gone from $256 per ton in 1950 to $90 per ton in the 1990s (in constant dollars).
• The drop in corn prices is equally impressive. A bushel of corn in 1950 would have cost $10.72 in 2000 dollars, but in 2000, a bushel of corn sold for $1.80.
• These gains are not confined to industrial countries. Developing countries also have experienced impressive gains. The rate of increase in food production in poor countries has been more than double that of the rate of population growth.