Feeding on Problems: From World Hunger to Abundance

By Harold Brown

Harold Brown, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Harold Brown, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Remember when India was a poster-country for overpopulation and starvation? In just one sign, The New York Times carried more than 100 articles per year from 1965 to 1980 that linked India’s name and population.

How times have changed. In August 2017, an article in The Times of India proclaimed, “Govt raises foodgrain output to record 275.68 tonnes” (metric). In 1961, the harvest was less than 100 metric tons. This tripling of cereal grain production occurred with almost no change of the land area used for these crops. (See attached chart.)

India’s food supply per person has increased over 20 percent since 1970, even as the population more than doubled. At the same time life expectancy has increased by 20 years and fertility decreased, from 5.6 births per woman to 2.4.

More recently, the percentage of undernourished Indians dropped by one-third from 1990 to 2014, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. And the proportion of consumer spending on food decreased by 15 percentage points.

The results are demonstrated in other ways: Indian boys and girls have grown taller and heavier. Those 8-12 years old were, on average, between one-and-one-half and two inches taller in 2006-2009 than in 1992, and were 12-14 pounds heavier.

India is indicative of world progress, and most other developing countries have made even more progress. In August, Russia also announced a record grain crop. World production of cereal grain set a record in 2016 and the 2017 production is projected at just 0.6 percent below that. World cereal stocks projected for the 2017-2018 season are 704 million metric tons; 60 percent higher than for the 2007/2008 season.

Hunger, as expressed by the U.N. measure of undernourishment, has decreased in large areas of the world by 50 percent or more since 1990 – South America, and Eastern and Southeastern Asia (including China). Even Bangladesh saw a 27 percent decline.

In 1969, Paul Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb,” predicted, “Only a fool would think that we are going to be able to supply food and the other amenities for a population increase of 70 to 100 million people each year for the next 30 years.”

As it turns out, the “fools” were right! Annual population growth averaged 81 million for the next 30 years. Food production grew more, supplying 326 more calories per day for the average person by 2000. By 2013, food supply had increased by 495 more calories per person.

One “fool” who helped to prove Ehrlich wrong, and in the process, saves millions upon millions of lives was Dr. Norman Borlaug. The distinguished agronomist spent most of his life helping increase grain production in developing countries but, for his humanitarian work, received only a tiny fraction of the press that Ehrlich got for encouraging hopelessness.

Borlaug is one of just five people to win all three of the following accolades: the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Borlaug’s early work was in Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Using a dwarf Japanese wheat variety, he made hybrids with tall, traditional wheats. The resulting short-stemmed, semi-dwarf hybrids didn’t fall over under the weight of heavier grain yields, as had older varieties. Combined with higher nitrogen fertilizer rates, the new varieties produced much higher yields of grain.

By 1963, Borlaug’s new varieties made up 95 percent of Mexico’s wheat, and Mexican wheat production was six times that of the early 1940s. Mexico had become not only self-sufficient in wheat production, but an exporter.

Also in 1963, Borlaug visited India and began cooperative work to improve yields there. Three years later, India imported 18,000 tons of seed of the new varieties for planting. In the 1970s, Borlaug went to China to help spread the Green Revolution to that struggling giant. His breeding techniques used to increase wheat yields were applied to rice, with similar results.

Borlaug had many collaborators, and there were numerous funding sources in the Green Revolution. And success came after years of planning, innovation and laborious field work. But Borlaug’s central role in this revolution was affirmed by the Nobel committee: “[M]ore than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world.”

But world nutrition problems are never solved, only reformulated. U.N. conclusions about food and nutrition have changed over the years, but manage to remain negative:

  • 1991 – “nearly 800 million people in the world are chronically undernourished”
  • 1995 –  “an estimated 200 million obese adults worldwide”
  • 2000 – “the number of obese adults has increased to over 300 million”
  • 2017 – “1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, while 462 million are underweight.”

As the world turns, obesity is replacing hunger as a health problem.

University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (October 13, 2017). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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