Ever heard that overpopulation will destroy the planet? It’s not a new idea. In the 18th century Thomas Malthus became one of the first climate alarmists, predicting that the faster growth in population than in food production would cause mass starvation and societal downfall. At this time, food production had yet to be industrialized, and farmers hadn’t seen the advantages of modern fertilizers.
During the days of Malthusian doomsday predictions, most crops received only the benefits that sunlight and water could satisfy. Nature provided most of the nutrients that plants needed; however, the quality of nitrogen naturally present in the soil left many plants slow to produce proteins needed for growth. That is, until the early 1900s, when a couple of industrious European chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, developed a process for delivering a more concentrated form of nitrogen known as ammonia to large-scale farms. This nitrogen-rich ammonia is made from fossil fuels, namely coal and natural gas.
With the use of the Haber-Bosch method and various other factors — such as improved irrigation, industrialization, and crop breeding, which were also mostly made possible through the use of fossil fuels — global crop production has increased dramatically. In the United States, corn production has increased by 500% since the 1940s, and the UK and much of the other agriculture-heavy countries have seen similar gains. In addition to serving as a major source of our diets, grain crops are responsible for feeding cattle and other sources of meat that people rely on daily.
In addition to nitrogen-rich fertilizers, fossil fuels play a dominant role in supplying farms with energy. Modern tractors and farm equipment are all powered by diesel and gas. Irrigation systems require large amounts of electricity and have allowed farms to survive through droughts when rain is scarce.
With modern agriculture tied so closely to the availability of cheap sources of energy provided by access to fossil fuels, the regressive environmental policies that seek to stem fossil fuel consumption would be the only way Malthus’ doomsday predictions could come true.
In 2019 we can see just how wrong Malthus was. The world is now home to over 7.5 billion people, and they are more well-fed than through all human history. The most advanced countries in the world actually face the problem of oversupply.
Even though developing countries still have 821 million people who are hungry, current global food production is enough to feed 10 billion. The disparity between the developed and the developing world is largely a consequence of insufficient power supply to keep food fresh. As a result, around 40% of food in these countries is wasted and radical environmental policies will only worsen access to food for the world’s hungry. Instead, we should focus on helping developing countries improve their access to electricity, making refrigeration as common as it is in America.
Without the ideas of innovators like Haber and Bosch, the it is estimated the world could only support half of the 7.5 billion it does currently. And that is the reason doomsayers like Malthus and modern environmentalists will always be wrong about their predictions. Humans, when faced with problems, solve them through innovating, not by institutions imposing stricter controls on them. If people had listened to Malthus’ calls for population controls, perhaps Haber or Bosch would never have been born, and the world would be stuck as it was in the early 1900s.
The best chance our society has at solving the world’s agricultural, environmental, and any future crises we may face, is the human intellect.