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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

No Peace on Earth: Why Agronomy Can't Feed the World

Norman Borlaug with high-yielding wheat, 1970
Norman Borlaug hoped that his wheat could feed the world, but wars continue to cause starvation

It’s not something the agronomists who talk about “feeding the world” usually mention, but most of the starvation that happened in the twentieth century was caused by war. Starving the enemy by burning their crops and slaughtering their livestock has been a military strategy for thousands of years, and the modern age is no exception. You know those horrible photos of starving children in Africa? Search long enough, and you’ll discover that most of them were taken in war zones, where one people group was purposely starving another to death.


During World War II, European infrastructure was in ruins. Able-bodied farmers were drafted into the military. Occupying forces purposely starved the countries they were trying to subjugate by commandeering all available food supplies and feeding the conquered people the bare minimum of calories necessary for survival. And even after the war was over, malnutrition was still a serious problem. The United States helped fill in the gap by providing emergency food aid to Europe until the prewar transportation and distribution systems could be repaired. The immense human suffering caused by starvation during and after the war was terrible, but the cause seemed fairly obvious.


Or was it? Beginning in the 1940s, a group of people called the Neo-Malthusians argued that war was actually caused by overpopulation. Using that inaccurate statistic I mentioned last week—that it takes 2.5 acres of arable land to feed one person—population researchers Guy Irving Burch and Elmer Pendall calculated that the world was already overpopulated by some 600 million people in 1945. Germany and Japan had only been driven to aggression, they argued, because their population had outstripped their food supply. Since they believed that all wars and other human suffering was caused solely by overpopulation, Burch and Pendall believed that the only way to stop future wars from happening was to reduce the world’s population.


Most agronomists—including the Green Revolution celebrity Norman Borlaug—unquestioningly accepted the belief that wars were caused by population increasing faster than food supply. However, they weren’t convinced that the 2.5 acres-per-person number was set in stone. If they could breed better varieties of crops that could produce higher yields per acre, the earth could support far more people and keep the “population monster” in check. And they were right—during the 20th century, food production actually increased at a faster rate than population. There were 30 percent more calories available per person in 2013 than 1961, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.


And yet there are still people starving today—mostly in war zones. The sad reality is that the Green Revolution’s increase in production didn’t really feed the world. Poverty and famine are far more complex issues than a simple calories-per-person equation. When people are being starved and displaced by their enemies, it doesn’t help them much if there was a bumper crop yield somewhere else in the world. Humanitarian aid can help and save some lives, but the root problem of war and hatred remains.


The reality is that high-yielding crops, pesticides, and fertilizers could not feed the world. And to be honest, organic farming methods can’t do it, either. The only thing that will ever assure that everybody can live in safety and have enough to eat is peace on earth—something to look forward to in hope this Christmas season.

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