Thomas Robert Malthus(B. 1766 D. 1834) was a British scholar. In the year 1798, he published his much famous theory about population growth. Even great Charles Darwin, as per his own noting, had found it amusing. In his theory, Malthus had stated that for any country, the population would always grow in a Geometrical Ratio. Whereas, the production of food, to sustain this population, would grow in an Arithmetical ratio. In simple words, this means that the rate of growth of population is much higher than the rate of growth of production of food to sustain this population. However, the nature would create automatically, calamities like, floods, famines, pandemics and wars, to keep the population in check and in line with food production. If humans interfere with this natural law, there would be uncontrolled growth of population.
World population today is in the throes of reaching an unimaginable figure of 7 Billion humans. China and India have already reached the population figures of 1.2 Billions. It is amazing to note that just ten years back, number of humans on earth, were not even 6 billion. This means that within last decade, we have added 1 billion hungry human mouths to the population. In spite of such uncontrolled rise in world population, can you say that there has been shortage of food in any one year? Off course, it is true, that a large part of Indian population, finds it very difficult to find even two square meals a day. Or some countries in Africa, do face horrible conditions due to famines. However, in India essentially, these are the problems, related to poverty and inability of these individuals to find productive work, which could enable them to earn and feed themselves. In Africa, these hunger problems, mostly relate to racial genocides and civil wars, where innocent poor people have to bear the hardships of hunger. In none of these cases, non-availability of food worldwide can be said to be the main concern or the problem. If you check the lists of top food producer countries today, you would find China and India, in the lists, among top three or four producers, in almost all categories of basic food products, such as rice, wheat and lentils. India exports even very basic food items such as rice and wheat.
In United States, more than 70% population has already turned obese, due to excessive food consumption. In China, percentage of Obesity in the cities, has reached 12%. What is more important to note is that it has doubled in last decade. In India 8 or 9%, population is suffering from Diabetes. A decease aggravated by excessive and unhealthy food consumption. All these facts show that we are consuming excessive food. In almost all countries of the world, it is amazing to see, such abundance of food, available from eateries, roadside shacks and restaurants. I am sure that even a decade ago, such proliferation of food joints was never seen. Same is the case with foodstuff available on the shelves of your grocer. Such wide variety and choice of food exists today, that I sometimes feel bewildered. If one decides to check the origin of all the foods available, one may have to go round the globe. We are producing enough food to feed the present population of world. If we could bring the population growth rate down to zero, in next thirty or forty years, the human population, can certainly look forward, to abundant availability of food on continuing basis.
With all these facts in back of our mind, when and how did we prove Malthus wrong? It is obvious, that while postulating his population theory, Malthus overlooked, human intelligence and capacity of human mind to overcome any problems with ingenuity, a very important factor, when anything concerning human development, is to be considered. Perhaps Malthus’s prediction would have come true, if he was studying behaviour of monkeys. However, with humans, it is all a different story. In the post Malthus period, mankind came out with two inventions, which were of paramount importance for stupendous growth in world food production.
The first major invention, though historically second, was the creation of Hybrid seeds. These wonder seeds produced crops, which were resistant to many plant diseases, required less irrigated water and gave super yields. Farmers in India and in many other parts of the world were quick to grab the new seeds. Agricultural produce soon multiplied many folds. The phenomenon is known now, as Green Revolution. The second major invention, which humbled Malthus’s theory, came from two Germans, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch and was put to practical use as early as in 1913. Under conditions of high temperature and pressure, they found out a way of combining Hydrogen gas with Nitrogen from air to produce Ammonia gas. This process is known as ‘Haber-Bosch process’ and even after a century later, remains to be most important step in production of Nitrogenous fertilizers, the current production of which has touched 500 million tons worldwide and which consumes 1% of available energy. Unfortunately, both these persons got associated with Adolph Hitler (Poison gas production) in later years and certainly bear some amount of responsibility towards killing of many Jews and other innocents in World War II. However, the Haber-Bosch process contributed to rapid rise in production of Nitrogenous Fertilizers, and with it the world food production. On any chart showing world population growth, Haber-Bosch process invention, happens to be an important signpost.
In the decade of 1960-70, there was a fashion in the so-called western intellectuals, to write and theorize, doom of countries like India in coming years, on the basis of Malthus’s theory. Most of these prophets of doom had predicted that with ever-increasing population, India would face diseases, natural disasters, famines and subsequent population outrage and would eventually destroy herself. These self proclaimed prophets, never could have imagined the profound effect of these two inventions and their acceptance by hard working Indian farmers in their ingenious ways and were very effectively silenced. Their tribe is however very difficult to control, as they keep on finding new reasons. like Global warming, to continue their warnings about failure of Indian agriculture. Best course for India would be to ignore them.
We have managed to prove, Thomas Malthus wrong. However, the real cause of worry now, remains in form of diseases like Diabetes and Hypertension, which are spreading their tentacles in the human population, because of over consumption of now abundant food supply.
4 August 2009