The Global 'Population Bomb' Fizzles Out
The Arrival of Earth's 6 Billionth Resident is a Cause for Celebration, Not Worry
October 5, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
October 1, 1999
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-Give a cheer for the world's 6 billionth human resident, due to arrive on the planet just in time for World Food Day on Oct. 16.
We should be proud to welcome the newest baby to a planet with a restabilizing human population, ample food for its people, rapidly rising incomes and the longest life expectancy in history.
The echoes of the "population explosion" are fading. Births per woman in Third World countries have dropped from 6.5 in 1960 to three today.
The First World rate of 1.7 births per woman is already below the "replacement" level of 2.1 births. World population is expected to peak in 2035 at about 8.5 billion.
In his famously incorrect 1968 book "The Population Bomb," Stanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich wrote, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over...hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death."
The next year, he argued, "By 1985, enough millions will have died to reduce the earth's population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people."
Instead, today's Third World residents enjoy 25 percent more calories than they did in 1968, and far more cooking oil, milk and meat. The latest food craze in Beijing is ice cream; South Koreans go for pizza.
David Pimentel, a Cornell entomologist, has announced that the world is headed for 12 billion people and cannot offer "the good life" to more than 2 billion.
He warns we may not be allowed to eat meat, travel where we want or enjoy nature unless we eradicate up to 10 billion people. (Will the guilt of 10 billion souls detract from your trip to Yellowstone National Park, sir?)
He should remember that the world's crop yields have soared in recent decades. We're feeding an extra 3 billion people on the same amount of land we farmed in 1950. High-yield farming has thus saved at least 15 million square miles of wildlands.
China may export some corn this year, and India may buy it to feed more chickens. The world's farmers are bemoaning low grain prices, the ultimate test of food sufficiency.
Pimentel says world grain production per capita has been declining since 1983, but fails to point out that virtually all the reduction has come in the collapsed economies of the old Soviet Union.
Russians can no longer afford to eat meat, so annual "Soviet" grain production has fallen about 75 million tons.
Is all this high-yield farming safe and sustainable? In 1980, Ehrlich wrote that American life expectancy would drop to 42 years because of pesticide poisonings. Instead, U.S. life expectancy rose from 70 years to 76 years during that period.
The real danger in our food is the bacteria E. coli, not tiny traces of pesticide. This fact has been pointed out by the National Research Council, the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences.
When discussing sustainable farming, the big question is soil erosion. Pimentel estimated a staggering 74 billion tons of annual soil erosion a year.
Pimental, however, failed to point out that most of the world's soil erosion occurs in primitive farming regions, where too many low-yield crops are still being planted on too-fragile soils.
In America, soil archeology in the Coon Creek watershed of Wisconsin finds that current soil losses are only 5 percent as high as in the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.
Can we keep raising farmers' yields around the world? Yes, if we ignore selfish pleas coming from Western Europe and the environmental group Greenpeace to ban biotechnology in food.
Europe wants to prevent higher farm yields from increasing the cost of its farm price supports. Greenpeace wants a fund-raising issue.
Environmentalist Lester Brown of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute argues that biotechnology won't help boost food production because plant breeders have already done most of the things that are physiologically possible to raise yields.
But two Mexican researchers recently used a citric acid gene to engineer acid-soil crops. Acid soils cut yields by up to 80 percent on half the arable land in the tropics. Meanwhile, Canadian researchers are engineering salt-absorbing crop plants to grow in saline soils or to be irrigated with salty water.
"Golden rice" has been developed that could wipe out the Vitamin A deficiency that causes 8 million children to go blind each year.
So let's extend a warm World Food Day welcome to the world's 6 billionth person, who won't trigger world famine any more than the rest of us have. And no cheers to the pessimists who have won so many headlines by misleading us about world food shortages.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.