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Malthus is still wrong: we can feed a world of 9–10 billion, but only by reducing food demand

Smith, Pete
Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2015 v.74 no.3 pp. 187-190
animal products, food production, food security, food technology, livestock, supply balance
In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus published ‘An essay on the principle of population’ in which he concluded that: ‘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.’ Over the following century he was criticised for underestimating the potential for scientific and technological innovation to provide positive change. Since then, he has been proved wrong, with a number of papers published during the past few decades pointing out why he has been proved wrong so many times. In the present paper, I briefly review the main changes in food production in the past that have allowed us to continue to meet ever growing demand for food, and I examine the possibility of these same innovations delivering food security in the future. On the basis of recent studies, I conclude that technological innovation can no longer be relied upon to prove Malthus wrong as we strive to feed 9–10 billion people by 2050. Unless we are prepared to accept a wide range of significant, undesirable environmental consequences, technology alone cannot provide food security in 2050. Food demand, particularly the demand for livestock products, will need to be managed if we are to continue to prove Malthus wrong into the future.