So many mouths to feed

Editorial
1868

More than 200 years ago Thomas Malthus predicted that global population would grow faster than global food production. With population figures standing at a total of well over seven billion people and rapidly increasing, that statement is becoming disturbingly valid.

An onslaught of heavy, humid tropical rain hammers the footpath at Changi, Singapore’s international airport.

“That’s good”, says the taxi driver: “It hasn’t rained for two months. It’s needed”.

Over the last few days, while traveling through Asia, I have been skimming through Dan Brown’s bestseller “Inferno”. The book is an easy read, has Brown’s usual engaging narrative flow, and is entertaining. Part of the plot concerns the world’s swiftly increasing population and subsequent approaching crisis.

Among others, Brown draws parallels with Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) where the British cleric and scholar in the fields of macroeconomics and demography upheld the Law of Population (1830) that states mankind has a capacity to procreate that far exceeds the potential of the natural resource base. Thus food production cannot keep up with the ever-increasing population, and the balance will be regulated by higher levels of mortality until population numbers are once again at an acceptable level. To put it another way, he had perceived that growth in the population is exponential, while he contended that the food supply only increases linearly. A dismal vision indeed.

The rapid growth in the economy, consumer purchasing power, and population during the last hundred years underlines his point.

216 years later, Malthus has still not hit the bull’s eye with his predictions. He’s not the only one though. The many thousands of horse-drawn cabs in London at the end of the 19th century prompted a journalist to predict in The Times in 1894 that “by 1944, every street in London would be covered in a 3-meter layer of horse manure”. Neither did that hit the mark.

Fortune tellers unfortunately often overlook a crucial factor: innovation.

But the concern raised by Brown and Malthus is important. The climate issue receives considerable attention, but food supply will present even more of a challenge in the coming centuries. At the same time, the two are closely interwoven. Efficient and sustainable food production, simultaneously healthy and nutritious, is good for the environment.

75 percent of the world’s protein sources originate from five animal species. Fish is virtually a negligible portion of the diet for large portions of the world’s population. Animal production, in particular pigs and cattle, is highly inefficient in its conversion of feed to meat. Beef cattle are the worst offenders, with a feed factor of 8:1. Hardly what can be called efficient or sustainable food production. Meanwhile, high-level production of feed raw materials, essentially grain products, is exerting enormous pressure on the world’s water supplies.

Half of the people of India are vegetarians, living almost solely on rice. At the same time, India is undergoing, as are many Asian countries, burgeoning growth in its economy and purchasing power. What happens when 500-600 million Indians decide they want meat on the dinner table?

In the discussions on sustainability the matter of feed utilization must be placed higher up on the agenda, and in that instance seafood is the winner. Fish farming’s feed factor of around 1:2 clearly makes it superior. The extremely low feed factor has long ago inspired NASA to consider fish farming as a food supply on future space stations.

At the same time fish feed utilises many of the same basic elements used in feed concentrates for animals: Soy, maize, rape seed, wheat, sunflower seed, fishmeal etc. Progress has also been made by introducing a varied assortment of farmed fish on menus.

Smart and efficient food production is the key to putting Malthus’ gloomy predictions to shame.