Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

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Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

For as long as there have been humans on this Earth, we have struggled with a balancing act between the size of the food supply and the size of the population.  When food is plentiful, we eat more and have more children.  When food is scarce, people starve, and the population dwindles until it once again comes into balance with the food supply. 

No one wants to watch people starve, so we have struggled over eons to solve this problem with successive waves of technology.  One such technological wave came during the age of exploration, when the Europeans spread crops like "Indian corn" and potatoes around the world.  That solved the problem for a while.  The United States was particularly blessed with fertile soil, a moderate climate, and natural transportation systems that made exporting surplus food easy.

However, by the end of World War II, the population had once again grown to the point of straining the world's food supply, and a new technology was needed.  Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, developed new strains of crops that used artificial fertilizers and pesticides to achieve stupendous advances in the amount of food that nations could produce. 

He was one of only six people in history to receive the Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.  Borlaug died recently at the age of 95, and according to a tribute in Investor's Business Daily,1 his work enabled the world's food supply to double between 1960 and 1990. 

Predictably, the human population exploded in lockstep with this expansion of the food supply.  The so-called Green Revolution lifted many out of poverty and saved many lives in places as diverse as India and Mexico.  But, together with the positive effects of sanitation, antibiotics, and other technologies, it also encouraged and enabled a rapid increase in population. 

According to the United Nations Population Fund,2 from 1900 to the present, the world population exploded from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion.  That number is expected to swell to more than 9 billion by mid-century.  This wave of technology and population growth has given rise to another kind of wave that has always followed closely behind every wave of technological progress: a wave of pessimism about the sustainability of progress. 

The original pessimist was Thomas Malthus, a British scholar who between 1798 and 1826 published various editions of his famous An Essay on the Principle of Population...

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