Time Bomb

Time Bomb

Charles Kenny’s latest article reminds me of a late-night episode of Seinfeld, a rerun played for youngsters who missed the original ("Bomb Scare," May/June 2010). Foreign Policy could avoid recycling this weary and irrelevant 200-year-old debate by instead exploring the state-centric research on food security that has emerged during the intervening years.

From this fresh perspective, it is much less important that world population will soon surpass 7 billion people and more relevant that nearly two dozen countries have dropped below established benchmarks of agricultural resource scarcity. As of 2010, 21 countries inhabited by some 600 million people have lost, for the foreseeable future (and perhaps forever), the potential to sustainably nourish many of their citizens much of the year using their own agricultural resources. By 2025, another 15 countries will have joined their ranks as a result of population growth alone.

So what? Don’t we live in an interdependent world where countries specialize and trade? For the foreseeable future, however, these countries will be dependent on an international grain market that has recently experienced unprecedented swings in volume and speculation-driven price volatility. The bottom line is that the poorest countries are spending their foreign currency reserves to import staples rather than using those reserves to import machinery, raw materials, and expertise that could speed their economic development.

What disturbs me most about reading Kenny’s rerun is its disconnect with current food-policy concerns, research, and debates. While another critique of Malthus’s 200-year-old thesis might fill up a magazine or Web page, its perspective hardly informs serious policy discussions.

Richard Cincotta
Demographer in Residence
The Henry L. Stimson Center
Washington, D.C.

Charles Kenny replies:

I am glad Richard Cincotta thinks that global population concerns might be overblown and that the debate over Malthus should be finished. Yet Cincotta repeats the old argument.

He — like Malthus — is worried about the development prospects of countries where populations have expanded to the land’s current productive capacity. My article suggests that the global growth in services and industries alongside a $600 billion trade in agriculture have helped make these Malthusian concerns redundant.

Cincotta (again, like Malthus) supports greater food self-sufficiency. But countries with lots of desert and oil are best off trading with countries with lots of farmland but few energy resources. That way, both countries get more money to import materials for development.

Economist Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize in part for the finding that people with money don’t starve. While Cincotta’s research shows that food-price volatility is a growing issue, volatility can be managed. Autarky can’t — the North Korean trading model hasn’t led to economic development or food security.

Seinfeld is still on TV for a reason — the repeats get ratings. Sadly, so do Malthusian arguments for population control and food self-sufficiency. Weary though the debate may be, it still goes on — and Malthus is still dead wrong.