Past Perspectives

At least in the English-speaking world, most credit for drawing attention to the problems posed by potential food insecurity is given to the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who lived from 1776 to 1834. He was preceded by many others, including Greeks, Romans, and Chinese (Evans, 1998); and Saether (1993) notes that there was a Dane, Otto Diederich Lutken, who wrote on the same theme 40 years earlier than Malthus. The Greeks, like Malthus, were mostly philosophical in their approach, whereas the Romans and Chinese were mostly practical, and tended to stress methods of sustainable and productive land use. In China as well as Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries where irrigation was essential to produce crops, the emphasis was also on the practicalities of sustainable crop production.

But it was Malthus in his series of essays published from 1798 who wrote most eloquently about the dangers posed by failure to grow sufficient food on a sustainable basis. He concentrated on "checks to population," and says little about food production. The checks he mostly discusses are warfare, pestilence and disease, storms and floods, as well as famines, and he also includes several mentions of countries and regions where infanticide was practiced.

Malthus put considerable emphasis on China and its needs, although the reliability of the sources of his "evidence," mostly reports from Jesuit missions, have often been questioned. The Jesuit priests in China probably obtained much of their information from the essays of Hung Liang-Chi, published in 1793 in China shortly before the first and anonymous version of Malthus' essay was published in London in 1798. Ho Ping-ti, in his book on the population of China published by Harvard University Press in 1959, refers to Hung Liang-Chi as "the Chinese Malthus." It might be more appropriate in terms of precedence to refer to Malthus as "the English Hung." They apparently arrived at similar gloomy prognostications, namely that population would exceed the means of production, and therefore that some disastrous end to growth of the population must occur.

In fact, during the eighteenth century Ho notes that there were several major disasters in China with population falling by 30 to 40 million on each occasion. In Hubei Province in the central Yangzi Valley, floods and other catastrophes have been a major problem for many years, and continue to be so. But there were also serious problems further north in

China, where there are huge areas of easily, and now badly, eroded loessal soils that form the headwaters of what used to be called the "Yellow River," because of discoloration due to the massive amounts of eroded sediments it carried. It has now been renamed the Huanghe, but is also known as "The Sorrow of China" (Hillel, 1991). The floods are of course also the source of the water and the sediments on which the sustainability of much rice farming depends (Greenland, 1997). The floods feed the lakes and ponds where the fish that supplement the rice diets are raised. Comparison of the Huanghe with the Ganges in India is interesting. The Ganges is venerated as "The Mother of India," while the Huanghe is "The Sorrow of China."

It is not surprising that the Chinese government is pressing ahead with the "three Gorges dams" in an effort to reduce the flood problems of central China, in spite of the publicity given to problems that will arise from the need to rehouse those whose villages and farms will be flooded by the new water storages. The Chinese government is of course balancing the (easier) problem of managing the welfare of the people under controlled conditions against those created by unpredictable flooding that are more difficult to manage.

The Taiping Wars were some of the most disastrous civil wars ever, with deaths certainly exceeding 30 million. The area of the lower Yangzi in which they occurred is among the most fertile, and heavily populated, in China (Thorpe, 1936; Ho, 1959). Ho Ping-ti attributes the large loss of life to the Taiping and other wars, the destruction of farmland, famines, epidemics, and the evils of opium.

Malthus collected his data from many parts of the world (Table 2.1) and many different sources. Patricia James (1989) — like Malthus, a Cambridge don — includes 104 pages devoted to "authorities quoted or cited by Malthus." These refer only to those that she felt required comment or amplification, beyond the reference details given in the text. Malthus argued that because population increases by geometrical progression, but food supply increases arithmetically, sooner or later population numbers must exceed food supply.

Table 2.1 Summary of Malthus' Studies on Population

Country

Reference

Country

Reference

Table 2.1 Summary of Malthus' Studies on Population

American Indians

Chapter

4

Islands of the South Seas

Chapter

5

Ancient inhabitants of the north of Europe

Chapter

6

Modern Pastoral Nations

Chapter

7

Different parts of Africa

Chapter

8

Siberia, northern and southern

Chapter

9

Turkish Dominions and Persia

Chapter

10

Indoostan and Tibet

Chapter

11

China and Japan

Chapter

12

Greeks

Chapter

13

Romans

Chapter

14

In James (1989), vol. 1, book 2

Norway

Chapter

1

Sweden

Chapter

2

Russia

Chapter

3

Middle parts of Europe

Switzerland

France

England

Scotland and Ireland

Middle parts of Europe

Switzerland

France

England

Scotland and Ireland

Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapters 8 and 9 Chapters 10 and 11 Chapter 12

China appeared to provide strong arguments in favor of his hypothesis.

It now appears unfortunate that Malthus did not consult the scientists of his time as carefully as he read the literature before publication of the anonymous version of his essay in 1798. As James noted, he made many important changes in the later versions of his essay. These showed that he was becoming aware of the effects that population pressure has on technical and scientific innovation. There were certainly some scientists working in 1798 who could have provided a scientifically based opinion about the potential for new lands to increase food production, and balanced this against population growth, although it is very doubtful if anyone could have foreseen the extent to which food production has increased during the subsequent 200 years. Fortunately, as

"U

"o

-□esnrra-D1innC

1950

1960

1970 Year

1980

1990

Figure 2.2 Increases since 1950 (on a logarithmic vertical scale) in world population (•), total cereal production (o), arable area (□) and the Food and Agriculture Organization index of total food production (A), all scaled to equality in 1948-1952. (Data from FAO Production Yearbooks.)

Evans (1998) has shown (Figure 2.2), production of cereals per caput has closely paralelled population growth.

Ester Boserup (1965, 1981), formerly of the University of California, took a very different view to those expressed in the original version of Malthus' essay. She believed that population growth drives technical and scientific progress of agriculture, rather than that population growth was checked by failures in agricultural production. In accordance with her hypothesis, she argued that China's rapid growth of population had driven the extensive development of water distribution systems, the establishment of various systems of multiple cropping, the breeding of dwarf and early maturing rice varieties, and she could now add the more recent successes in the breeding and use of hybrid rice (Virmani, 1988 and 1994). All of these advances originated in China, and have been

important in sustaining the continuing population increase. Comments in the later editions of Malthus' essay show that Malthus was aware of this possibility. As Evans put it, "[W]e face both a Malthusian time bomb and a Boserupian treadmill."

The first chapter in the 11th edition of Russell's Soil Conditions and Plant Growth (Wild, 1988) is an excellent account of the studies of plant nutrition that were being conducted at that time. Liebig (1840), Boussingault (for whom McCosh [1984] provides a useful bibliography), and others were already producing the evidence on which the fertilizer industry was based, and it was only a few years before the establishment of Sir John Lawes' superphosphate factory in London (Dyke, 1993). Malthus must also have been familiar with the journals of James Cook (Williams, 1997) concerning the exploration of the South Pacific and the coasts of Australia and New Zealand. Cook returned from his first travels in the South Pacific in 1771. Sir Joseph Banks, eminent botanist who was to be elected president of the Royal Society in 1778, was the leading scientist who accompanied Cook. He would certainly have been very willing to inform Malthus on the extent of new lands and the productivity of their soils. Malthus must also have had some knowledge of the vigorous discussions about plant nutrition that were being conducted at that time.

Malthus occasionally mentions soils, and the advantages of virgin land in growing crops, and his account of the suitability for crop production of the chernozems of the Ukraine (chapter 9 of James' vol. 1) makes it clear that he was well aware of the role that soil fertility could play in supporting larger populations.

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