Green icon Paul Ehrlich is widely known for his absurdly inaccurate projections regarding population and food. Rarely does a doomsday projection pass by without his embracing it. But most of his previous false claims are forgotten, or ignored, by the anti-capitalist coalition of today.

After all, Ehrlich made those claims in 1968, and that was a long time ago. But in 1990 he published The Population Explosion, a sequel to his first bestseller.1 Yet again time has proven that Ehrlich’s premises, on which his projections are based, are severely flawed. If an excess of three decades worth of statistics contrary to his theories do not dent his reputation, then Ehrlich deserves the title Teflon Prophet.

It is not the facts that compel Ehrlich’s supporters as much as a fanatical adherence to his solutions: global central economic planning more ambitious than anything Marx ever dreamed of. Ehrlich says he “can’t really see any truly insuperable barriers to reorganizing our society so that virtually everyone could lead a more pleasant, productive, satisfying life.”2 As he sees it, our choice is to abandon the market for an “orderly, planned way to a sustainable human life-support system or to be brutally forced into that shift by nature.”3 When he wrote so wistfully about “reorganizing our society” did he envision himself as one of the reorganizers?

Ehrlich recognizes that reorganization would mean “giving up many things that we now consider to be essential freedoms.” While the costs would be great, so would the supposed benefits, which include “avoiding the total collapse of civilization and the disappearance of the United States as we know it.”4 Ehrlich is serious, and he’s taken seriously by the anti-capitalist coalition. His perceived sainthood rests not on acumen or accuracy, but on the fact that the solutions he offers are ideologically in tune with his supporters.

The most recent major study to disprove the theories of Ehrlich came from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). In its book Global Food Projections to 2020, the IFPRI looks back at the last 30 years of world food production—coincidentally the period since the publication of Ehrlich’s first book. With the advantage of hindsight the Institute finds “that most regions have made substantial inroads against poverty and averted widespread famine in recent years.”5 The result has been a significant drop in the numbers of malnourished children. In high-risk developing countries malnutrition rates declined from “an aggregate rate of more than 46 percent in 1970 to 31 percent in 1997.” That translates “into an absolute decline of 20 million malnourished children since 1967.”6

In 1990 Ehrlich had a very different view of Latin America. He lamented: “Since 1981, per-capita food production has also been lagging” there and that “population growth is already outstripping food production.” Yet the IFPRI says that per capita cereal production increased from 225.3 kilograms in 1967 to 253.4 kilograms in 1997. During the period of 1990–1997 cereal production was growing at an annual rate averaging 1.9 percent, compared to a population growth rate of 1.7 percent.7 Ehrlich’s book was already wrong by the time it was printed: per capita food production, instead of lagging, grew by 11 percent over the next decade and cereal production increased faster than the population.

What the IFPRI has to say is good news all around, but more so for the developing countries. Instead of heading toward global famine, food supplies are increasing for the vast majority of the world’s population. The IFPRI found:

• “caloric availability per capita rose in developing countries between the 1960s and the early 1990s by 400 kilocalories, reaching nearly 2,700 kilocalories per day by 1997″;8
• per capita cereal production, from 1967 to 1997, “rose substantially”;9
• per capita gains in cereal production “rose from 176 kilograms in 1967 to 226 kilograms in 1997, an increase of 28 percent.”10

No Malthusian Crisis

The IFPRI is not alone in its conclusions. Tim Dyson, professor of population studies at the London School of Economics, wrote in the British Medical Journal that “a global malthusian crisis is unlikely to occur during the next few decades.”11 Dyson surveyed the various regions of the world and found a healthy scenario regarding food and population. He said that famines on the Indian subcontinent “will be things of the past” provided the region remains politically stable. In China he found “no cause for alarm,” and both “Latin America and the Middle East have a record of progress in feeding their people and this is likely to continue.”12

Ehrlich, who projected massive famines in his first book, ignored his original projections in his second book. Instead of admitting he was wrong he wrote: “Of course, [as if he knew this all along] food production worldwide has continued to increase somewhat faster than the population for the last four decades.” But while some people believe this will continue for the foreseeable future, he says, “all signs point in the opposite direction.”13

Dyson wrote that the trend, instead of reversing, has continued unabated: “Food production should be able to keep up with the growth in world population that is projected to occur over the next 25 years. An important reason for this is that the worldwide growth in cereal yield shows no sign of slowing down.”14

Data from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) shows worldwide cereal yields to have increased from just over one ton of cereal per hectare in the early 1950s to about 3 tons by the late 1990s.15 And worldwide averages are significantly below those of the developed world, implying room for a great deal of growth.

Areas that Ehrlich once said were hopeless are today feeding their own people. In his 1990 book Ehrlich claimed that food production in India, which had increased contrary to his prior warnings, had finally “lost momentum.” But the IFPRI data shows Ehrlich to be inaccurate yet again. Instead of losing momentum, rice production in India grew from 3.7 metric tons per hectare in 1990 to 4.2 in 1997. In addition, wheat production increased from 2.2 tons to 2.6, and maize increased from 1.5 tons to 1.7 tons.16 India, which was importing over 9 million metric tons (mmt) of cereals in 1967 was exporting almost 2 mmt by 1997.

Ehrlich had even less hope for the entire South Asia region. Yet the Institute’s data show that its food production increased throughout the ’90s and surpassed India’s in percentage terms. In 1990 Erhlich said Vietnam, once “a rich food exporting region,” was suffering from ecological destruction.17

In 1967 Vietnam imported 1.5 mmt of cereal. By 1982 imports were down to 0.6 million, and when Ehrlich’s book was released, Vietnam was exporting 1.2 mmt. By 1997 exports were up to 2.8 mmt.18

There are two fundamental reasons that Ehrlich has consistently, and substantially, erred with his projections. All his calculations are based on two false factors: he assumes food production must decrease while population growth rates remain steady. As we’ve seen, food production has continued to increase for the three decades since he first sounded his warnings. But Ehrlich felt such declines were inevitable and said the “tragedy” would be compounded by the fact “that the world population seems committed to a growth rate of closer to 2 percent for the next few decades.”19 While “few” is indeterminate, it is safe to assume he meant more than a couple; say, 30 years—until 2020.

But instead of remaining near 2 percent population growth rates had already declined by the time Ehrlich wrote his book. Population growth peaked around 1970 at 2.1 per cent. By 1980 it was down to 1.73 percent, and when Ehrlich’s book was published it had dropped to 1.7 percent. In 1995 the Institute for Demographic Studies said the rate had declined even further, to 1.5 percent.20 And it continued to plummet so that by 2000, at 1.3 percent, it was closer to 1 percent than to Ehrlich’s projected 2 percent. Even the United Nations, which usually overestimates population growth, says that growth levels by 2015 will be down to 1.03 percent.21

Point of Agreement

There is one area on which Ehrlich, Dyson, and the Institute all agree: sub-Saharan Africa. There cereal-production rates declined almost from the day the colonial powers pulled out until today. In 1967 per capita cereal production was 127.9 kilograms but by 1997 it had dropped to 124.6 kilograms. This production rate is only one-fifth that of the developed countries and is about half the average for the developing countries. In spite of being the least populated continent, perhaps partially because of it, Africa’s per capita food production is significantly lower than that of South Asia, the next poorest region in the world.22

In August 2000 the FAO warned that 17 countries faced severe food shortages, all in sub-Saharan Africa.23 But what is clear is that in the majority of these cases, 12 countries by my count, political problems and war are the main cause of food shortages. Almost all the “basket cases” of the world from 30 years ago are now well on their way to feeding themselves, but not Africa. That raises the question why. If we look at the successes we see some dramatic changes. From 1958 to 1962 an estimated 30 million Chinese starved to death under an artificial famine created by socialist economic and agricultural policies.24 Market reforms were instituted after Mao’s death, and food suddenly became more plentiful. The late political scientist David Osterfeld noted that after reforms, food production increased by 40 percent.25 Since the early ’90s, when Osterfeld wrote his book, cereal production in China has increased by a further 17 percent.26 In addition, market reforms have vastly increased the wealth of nonfarmers in China, making it relatively easy for them to afford to import the surpluses of food being produced in much of the rest of the world.

India, which Ehrlich had written off, has also turned into a food exporter. Again market reforms predated the rise in production. The late Julian Simon noted in Atlantic Monthly that “Most price controls were lifted, and price supports were substituted for controls. Indian farmers had a greater incentive to produce more, so they did. They increased production by planting more crops a year, on more land, and by improving the land they had. They also introduced higheryield strains and improved fertilizers.”27 Since Simon wrote those words cereal production in India has increased 50 percent further.28

But Africa has continued down the road of state intervention. What market reforms have been instituted have been half-measures and often repealed later. In many cases, such as Zimbabwe, the government has waged war on private markets intentionally, undermining private property rights and the incentives to produce. Reforms in Africa have been so half-hearted that the IFPRI produced a paper on the subject titled The Road Half Traveled.29

Throughout Africa state marketing boards often hold a monopoly on critical foodstuffs. Frequently these boards will pay farmers below-market rates and then sell the produce on the world market with all profits going to the government or to individuals in the government. It remains true that Africa is a bastion of state control over agriculture. But it is not enough that the state withdraw from agricultural matters. The rule of law and the sovereignty of individual property rights must be upheld. It is difficult for any business, let alone farmers, to plan for the future if they cannot enter into secure contracts or if they have no legal claim to the property they use.

Other factors that undermine agricultural production include the periodic influx of “food aid” to Africa, which destroys local production. Often such aid is given to the central government and is used to expand state activities that attract human capital from the private sector. Paradoxically, one factor in Africa’s lack of development may be that the continent, on the whole, is underpopulated. Agricultural production needs to get to markets, and for that to happen, infrastructure is needed. But infrastructure cannot be built if the numbers of people it will serve are few. One simply does not build multimillion dollar highways to villages of 200 people.

The battle to feed humanity is not over. And while the fight is still being waged, it does appear that, contrary to Ehrlich, humanity is winning. Throughout the world, market forces have vastly expanded the ability of mankind to feed itself. And as a result, food per capita has continued to grow for the last few decades. Nations that only a few decades ago were pronounced hopeless now produce surpluses because of market reforms. Endemic starvation is essentially limited to one corner of the world where markets are not embraced and where private property is not secure. Of course, this does not stop the anti-capitalist coalition from blaming capitalism. Nor does it prevent the coalition from suggesting new forms of socialism, on a global scale, as the solution.

But the evidence, which grows daily, indicates that the fight over food is more illusionary than real. Substantial progress is intentionally ignored and starving children are used as propaganda to persuade the world to adopt global economic planning. A phony crisis is being invented in the hope that it will persuade people to adopt a counterfeit solution.

1. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Explosion (London: Hutchinson, 1990).
2. Ibid., p. 184.
3. Ibid., p. 44.
4. Ibid., p. 181.
5. Mark Rosegrant et al., Global Food Projections to 2020 (Washington, D.C., International Food Policy Research Institute, 2001), p. 3; See also Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical
Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World.
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), chapter 9.
6. Ibid., p. 4.
7. Ibid., pp. 5, 8.
8. Ibid., p. 5.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Tim Dyson, “Prospects for Feeding the World,” British Medical Journal, October 9, 1999, p. 988.
12. Ibid., p. 989.
13. Ehrlich, p. 68.
14. Dyson, p. 990.
15. Ibid.
16. Rosegrant et al., p. 22.
17. Ehrlich, p. 73.
18. Rosegrant et al., p. 10.
19. Ehrlich, p. 109.
20. Jim Peron, Exploding Population Myths (Chicago: Heartland Institute, 1995), p. 35.
21. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Rajul Pandya-Lorch, and Mark Rosegrant, The World Food Situation: Recent Developments, Emerging Issues and Long-Term Prospects (Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute, 1997), p. 28.
22. Rosegrant et al., p. 5.
23. Report can be read at
24. Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: China’s Secret Famine (London: John Murray, 1996).
25. David Osterfeld, Planning versus Prosperity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 64.
26. Based on data in Rosegrant et al., p. 22.
27. Julian Simon, “The State of World Food Supplies,” The Atlantic Monthly, July 1981, pp. 72–76.
28. Based on data in Rosegrant et al., p. 22.
29. Mylène Kherallah et al., The Road Half Traveled: Agricultural Market Reform in Sub-Saharan Africa (Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute, n.d). It can
be found at