Ever since the days of Thomas Malthus, who famously predicted in the 18th century that population increases would far outstrip gains in food production, those who have foreseen global famine have been proved relentlessly wrong.
Twice before, our species has been saved from starvation by science. But as we move towards a planet of eight billion people, we are in uncharted territory. Let’s hope a new Norman Borlaug is waiting in the wings.
Shortly after Malthus made his grim prediction, we saw the first Agricultural Revolution – the systematic application of science and technology to farming. New varieties of crops, an understanding of crop rotation and the development of mechanisation saw yields soar. Hunger was also averted by the development of a global trade in food, spurred by the advent of steam ships and refrigeration.
Still, the population kept rising – but along came a saviour in the form of Norman Borlaug, one of the most important human beings ever to have lived. Hitler will always be famous for killing millions; yet Dr Borlaug, an American food scientist, saved billions, and yet relatively few of us have heard of him. In the 1960s, he bred new varieties of wheat and rice and other crops, a breakthrough now called the Green Revolution. If it hadn’t been for him, then Asia and perhaps South America would have seen serious famine in the 1970s.
Now we are reaching the limits of the Green Revolution.