September 19, 2017

Less food, less people?

It now appears that America is short of one million tons of nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers which could reduce food grain yields for next year by twenty million tons.

Senator Hubert Humphrey predicts that if nothing is done about it, there will be “an international food crisis, the likes of which the world has never seen”.

Whether this leads to mass starvation or not, the mere fact of food shortages may well affect population levels.

Malthus, it will be remembered, considered that population grew to consume available food supplies.

This may not have been true of hunter gatherer bands, or even primitive agriculturalists, who undoubtedly developed cultural controls to prevent population from growing beyond that level which the environment could sustain. It does appear to be true, however, of urbanised societies.

This too is Rene Dubos’ opinion, or at least it was when he wrote his remarkable book Man Adapting. He points out that,

“All over the world and throughout historical times, the long-range population trends have always proved to be independent of epidemics, wars, famines, and other catastrophes. The widespread and fantastically destructive epidemics of plague that ravaged Western Europe during the Justinian era, and again during the Middle Ages, did of course sharply reduce population size for a while, but this effect was, soon obliterated. The influence of the notorious London plague in 1665 was no longer perceptible 15 or 20 years later. In fact, the periods that followed the epidemics of plague from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries were among the most vigorous in Europe’s history! The famines and epidemics that have historically laid waste in China, India and Egypt during historical times have not made these countries less densely populated. The four years of the First World War and the pandemic of influenza that followed it, caused at least 20 million deaths, but it took only a few months to make up this number again! Interestingly enough, concern with overpopulation became acute immediately after the end of the Second World War, before DDT and antimicrobial drugs could have exerted any significant impact on world health.

“The paradoxical truth is that the phenomenal increase in world population during the past 50 years has coincided with great epidemics, two world wars, several minor ones, and deep disruptions of social and economic life everywhere. Furthermore, as is well known, the most destitute and disease-ridden populations of the world are precisely the ones that are increasing the fastest. This is particularly the case for many rural areas in which the state of health is hardly affected by physicians, drugs, or sanitation. In fact, the shape of the curves depicting the growth of the world population makes it clear that the acceleration far antedates the introduction of vaccines, insecticides, and drugs. In many countries of tropical Africa, for example, the mean increase of the population was about 1.5 per cent per annum for the period 1950-60, even though malaria eradication had then barely begun in these areas.”

On the other hand, population growth appears to have coincided with increases in food supply, thus,

“According to the Chinese census, the population of China, which was under 64 million in 1578, climbed to 108 million by 1661 and to 144 million by 1741. This extremely rapid growth seems to have resulted from the introduction into China of three kinds of crops easily grown and giving very large yields: corn around 1550, the sweet potato around 1590, and peanuts a little later.

“Interestingly enough, the most spectacular population spurt in Europe occurred at about the same time as in China, and seems to have been due in part to the introduction of the white potato from the Andes. Following this event, the population of Ireland increased from 3,200,000 in 1754 to 8,175,000 in 1846, not counting some 1,750,000 who emigrated during this period, and despite great poverty. A similar situation, on a smaller scale, was created by the introduction of the bean among the Pueblo Indians in the Rio Grande valley.”

In Britain, the same principle applies. With the Industrial Revolution it became possible to increase food supplies by importing them from abroad and paying for them with money earned from the export of manufactured goods. Does population fall, however when food supplies are reduced? Dubos thinks it does, but only when the situation is acute. Thus hunger certainly reduces the desire or the ability to reproduce. Prisoners starved in concentration camps have reported that one of the earliest effects of under-nutrition was a loss of sexual desire. The acute famine that prevailed in the Netherlands during the late phase of the Second World War was followed one year later by a marked decline in the number of births. When the situation becomes chronic, however, habituation seems to set in and the breeding rate does not appear to fall.

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