Overpopulation: serious issue or not?

Grade-school lecture and Soylent Green made an impression

At risk of sounding a bit negative, I wanted to talk a bit this week about something that’s been on my mind since I was a boy.

I believe it was around Grade 3 to 5 roughly, about 1980-ish, that I was sitting in Science class and the topic of global population came up. My classmates and I listened to the teacher talk about the land and sea’s ability to support a growing world population; at that time the human population was about 5 billion, give or take.

We were told in no unclear terms that the planet can only support a certain number of people by producing a certain amount of food, and there would come a time in the future (the United Nations feels human population will peak at almost 12 billion in the year 2100) that human population would exceed the ability of the planet to support human life. I found this lesson to be rather frightening.

(As an aside, it wasn’t as frightening as the ICBM drill I participated in. As Grade 1 students in 1977 we were given a nuclear war drill that the entire elementary school also participated in. We listened to an ear-splitting claxon that pretty much announced the end of our world, and then our teacher told us to huddle underneath our desks. If you’ve ever seen any of those old Cold War clips of hydrogen bombs blasting city blocks to ashes, you know how absurd hiding under a desk is. But that’s a subject for another day.)

The overpopulation issue stayed with me every since (watching disaster movies like Soylent Green didn’t help) and I’m not the only one who thinks about this problem; it’s been discussed for hundreds of years. A clergyman, scholar and mathematician named Thomas Malthus discussed it in his 1779 book “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” where he succinctly surveyed the problem: “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.” However, Malthus didn’t necessarily believe a population catastrophe was imminent, as human and natural factors could prevent it. For example, new agricultural discoveries mean more food grown, while, sadly, things like disease and war tend to thin out overpopulation.

After World War II we experienced the “Green Revolution,” as agricultural advancements saw a boom in production and drop in prices; this coincided with a massive population explosion after the war. World population has increased from roughly 2.5 billion after WWII to 7 billion today, almost triple.

Food production, though, has generally kept pace. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has stated they think global agriculture will produce more food than the global population actually requires, and this will happen by 2030.

Call me a worrywart, but it still seems there’s something obvious being overlooked. Global agriculture is a human industry, and humans are notorious for ignoring or minimizing issues or problems. Agriculture may be able to feed huge populations, but if something happens to that agricultural production, for example, a super-Mad Cow Disease or a wind-borne blight that affects wheat with 100 per cent fatality, how would the global agricultural industry cope with that?

In the past threats like Mad Cow seem to have been overlooked, and there’s also the issue of genetic similarity in both livestock and crops. If livestock and crops are too genetically similar, and nature decides to drop a new disease or blight that targets that exact genetic footprint, it could be catastrophic.

If we have over 10 billion people relying on global agriculture by 2050 and anything at all happens to that industry, what’s going to happen to us?

Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.

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