Science in Christian Perspective



The Balance of Food and Population*

From: JASA 14 (March 1962): 2-7.

here is a good possibility that Thomas Malthus would not express his views on the balance of food and population in nearly as pessimistic terms today as he did in his first essay in 1798. This is said in spite of the phenomenal increase in population which has occurred and is occurring. A serious student of the world food situation must acknowledge that agricultural productiv ity has in a very remarkable way been accelerated dur ing the past 150 years. Malthus certainly was inaccurate in postulating that means of sustenance increases only 

However, it is true that every population, be it plant or animal, ultimately faces the limits of its environment.
Certainly man is no exception to basic ecological principles. But history has shown that man has been suc cessful in modifying his environment through science and technology to such an extent that one can never really predict what are the immediate limitations of his environment. Thus to speak of the balance of food and  population is not an easy task.
  Science does not give us complete cause for optimism,
in an arithmetical manner. however. Paul Sears (6) reminds us that we are not
*Presented at the 16th Annual Convention of the American really concerned with science when considering the
Scientific Affiliation, Houghton, New York, August 22-25, problem of food and population, but with the moral
1961. limitation of man. Can mankind preserve the com monly accepted values of civilization during his adjust-

**Associate Professor of Biology, Eastern Mennonite College, Harrisonburg, Va. 

ment to environmental limitations? It is this problem which concerns us as we contemplate the achievements and prospects of science as it relates to food and population.

Man, being more than an animal, is not doomed to savage competition for food and food production facilities. He does have the ability to cooperate in this gigantic task. The large number of government, intergovernment and private organizations concerned with food production and distribution in underfed countries gives evidence that man has dedicated himself to some extent to cooperation (9). These efforts have been effective in some measure. The world has not experienced a major famine during the past decade for the first time in recent human history. This has been due primarily to the magnificent work of the relief agencies. But such programs, however worthy and commendable, have not attacked basic problems in the conquest of hunger.

In the world today there are well over a billion people living under conditions where 80 per cent or more of their toil is spent on obtaining food. Infant mortality due to malnutrition among these peoples is 50 per cent or greater (10). It is not surprising to read and hear continually that hunger is the greatest cause of social unrest and revolution. Ill-fed people, outnumbering the well-fed two to one, and aware that food and land is plentiful in other parts of the world, will not continue to be content with their lot. Nor should they be. These people are not demanding Western standards of diet and wealth overnight, but they do desire progress. They wish to see improvement in their standard of living and promise of further advancement, even if it must be gradual. Instead, too often, they experience the vicious circle of poverty producing deeper poverty and hunger.

The food dilemma is of course most serious in view of the increasing rate of population growth. Even if conventional means of birth control are strenuously taught, we are still faced with the question of whether it is physically possible for our planet to yield sufficient food for the number of people who will almost certainly populate the earth in the next several decades. According to the data accumulated by the Foreign Agriculture Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, the observation is made that "agricultural production in the world as a whole and in the foreign Free World has increased somewhat faster than population in the past decade. It is expected to continue to outpace population during the 1960's"(11). But this report on the world agricultural situation for 1960 notes that the per capita production for Latin America and the Far East has been dropping. In Ceylon one-half of its rice and all of its wheat flour requirements will have to be imported in the immediate future. Ceylon has been experiencing a 3 per cent population growth, a formidable barrier to gains in per capita farm output. The Foreign Agricultural Service predicts the agricul tural output in the Far East will increase faster than population in the next ten years, but because of the present deficit of food, these countries will still need to import large quantities of grain.

According to E. J. Bigwood (2) of Brussels University, the present world food situation could be summarized as follows:

1. Eighty per cent of the world population is getting less than 2500-3000 calories per day (FAO recommends around 2500 calories per day as minimum)

2. There is uneven distribution of food in sparsely populated areas as well as in densely populated areas.

3. Animal protein consumption is below minimum standards for good health.

We shall discuss first the problem of malnutrition, then production, and finally preservation and distribution.

The problem of inadequate diet results in what could be considered two types of hunger: quantitative malnutrition in which the individual experiences real, overt undernourishment, and qualitative malnutrition, a type of malnourishment in which the individual is not getting the proper diet but may not actually feel hungry.

in most cases hunger is seasonal, being particularly severe in the form of sporadic "preharvest hunger." Some pre-harvest hunger is due not only to lack of facilities for food preservation and storage, but to peasant logic which rules out preparation for an event which may not occur (1). Why prepare for calamity if its occurrence is uncertain?

In the case of quantitative malnutrition, the consumption of food in terms of calories is usually most significant. In the United States the average calories obtained per person per day has been estimated at 3200, while in Bolivia and Ecuador it is around 1900 and in Peru, Pakistan and India around 2050 (5). The complete nutritional story is not correctly expressed in terms of calories alone, however. We must include in our concept the problem of inadequate protein and vitamin consumption.

Dr. Oomen has observed in New Guinea that even slight increases in calories and protein in the diet were effective in promoting better health even though levels were still sub-optimal (2). He noted that if a person who had been consuming only 1400 calories and 25 grams of protein per day were to increase his intake to 1600 calories and 35 grams of protein there was a marked improvement in health. Inclusion of animal protein, such as fish, was most valuable.

Protein deficiency is aggravated by a high level of carbohydrate intake. The prevalence of such starchy foods as maize, sorghum, cassava, yams, and plantain, even though supplying an adequate caloric level, may actually aggravate protein deficiency which commonly accompanies a high starch diet. This problem is most serious in the case of children, especially newly-weaned infants, resulting in the often fatal disease kwashiorkor.

Lansbury (7) in a most readable article suggests several approaches toward alleviation of protein deficiency in West Africa.

1. Import protein - an economically unhealthy approach.
2. Development and modernization of sea fisheries.
3. New sources of protein such as fresh-water fishfarming, algae production, and leaf protein extraction.
4. Fortification of local products with cheap, imported protein such as American surplus skim milk.
5. Expansion and intensification of local livestock production.

He goes on to present reasons why the production of poultry and eggs seems to be the most feasible approach in that region. It is possible to supplement and balance locally-available vegetable protein by adding animal protein such as dried milk or fish meal, but in most cases it is cheaper to balance the diet using animal products directly. Usually the problems in increasing production of animal products are quite severe. Not only are there such difficulties as disease, parasites, lack of animal feed, and poor management which severely limit the establishment of livestock enterprises, but also the extremely limited purchasing power of the people who need the animal products the most.

Finally a look at the problem of deficiency diseases should clarify the point that the problem of balance between food and population is not merely a quantitative concern. Williams (12) has estimated that there may be hundreds of millions in Asia who are suffering from mild beriberi to such an extent that it is a tremendous -handicap to their struggle for self-improvement. Vitamin deficiency diseases which are common in widespread areas of the world are ariboflavinosis (lack of riboflavin associated with lack of foods containing animal protein), beriberi (thiamine deficiency associated with use of white flour or white rice), pellagra (niacin deficiency due to diet high in white flour, maize, or cassava), and xerophthalmia (vitamin A deficiency associated with lack of green, leafy vegetables, and fats). Williams strongly advocates a mass vitamin enrichment program as the most effective means of combating many of these diseases. He points out that at present prices (1960) it would cost six cents per person per year to purchase the necessary thiamine and niacin needed to enrich rice flour to an adequate level. An FAO team to the Philippines studied this possibility but favored other means rather than rice enrichment because of the technical difficulties involved.

There are still many problems of malnutrition which need to be investigated before all world problems are understood. The problems of nutritional anemias and the high incidence of bladder and kidney stones among large masses of ill-fed populations are not clearly understood.

Looking at the world in general, there have been optimistic estimates as to food production potential. John Boyd-Orr (3) estimates that the earth could support 6 billion people if modem agricultural methods were applied to all present cultivated land and known measures were utilized to increase the area of earth under cultivation. Dennis A. Fitzgerald (6) made the following statement: "As far as global agricultural production is concerned, I have a deep-seated conviction that output can be increased more or less indefinitely at a rate much larger than any probable rate of population increase."

In the same conference, J. J. Christensen (6) expressed the opinion that even though the present rate of increase in food production is high, this does not mean that it cannot continue to increase in the future. Not all food experts may agree on the magnitude of future increases in food production, but there is general agreement that these increases will probably not occur in those local regions where food is needed the most. Even though production is increased, the distribution problem will remain.

From the historical standpoint, some remarkable increases in food production have been noted. During the occupation of Taiwan by the Japanese (18951945), rice production was trebled, sugar production was increased 30 times, and the general standard of living and literacy improved while the population doubled (6). In the United States, not only has agricultural production mushroomed, but in two decades the food producer has nearly tripled his output per hour of work. Orville Freeman (5), Secretary of Agriculture, acclaims this as "one of the significant and important breakthroughs in human history."

The nature of food production changes as population increases. Animals, which build into their bodies and products only about 10 per cent of the calories they consume, must be replaced by the much more efficient plant as a food source. As population increases further, cereals may be replaced by vegetables. Potatoes, for instance, produce more food energy per acre than any other staple crop except corn (6). Unfortunately, potatoes are well adapted only to the cooler climates.

As the efficient crops are utilized in place of the less efficient, production per unit of land is increased but variety of diet is decreased. This is particularly serious as it affects animal products in the diet. It is thus apparent that, although production quantity may be increased as population pressure increases, the quality of the new products has a tendency to be less desirable from the standpoint of diet.

The production problem is sometimes explored in terms of land available on the earth. Even though there are many pitfalls in this approach, it is an important aspect of the food production problem since land will remain for some time the most important media for food production. Countries having around 1.5-2 acres of fertile land per capita can theoretically produce all the food they need. The quality of food produced depends on the efficiency of their agriculture. In the world as a whole in 1955 there were about 1.25 acres of land available per person (9). Since some countries, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina have well over 1.25 acres of land per person, this means that most of the people of the world have less. The situation is most severe in such crowded countries as China and Japan where the amount of cultivated land per person is less than 0.5 acre. Whitaker (6) points out that even if all arable land were distributed over the earth in the same way as population, there would scarcely be enough land to meet man's needs under present usage. Even though much presently untilled land could be gradually brought into production, the total amount of land under cultivation may not actually increase because of concurrent losses due to erosion, salting, and human structures.

Large areas of land are being lost at the present time in India and North Africa as deserts enlarge at the rate of a mile per year. There are today only 8 billion acres under cultivation, while there are 12 billion acres of desert. It is quite probable, in view of recent discoveries, that most of the present desert was produced as result of man's activities. It may well be that at one time 16 billion acres were suited for cultivation, half having been lost to desert during the past eras of civilization (3).

In view of the impressive desert expanse, it is not surprising that William E. Warne (6) considers water resources for agriculture to represent one of the chief hopes of the world for increasing food production. Less than 2.5 per cent of the cultivated land of the world is irrigated. Yet this land provides food for approximately 25 per cent of the world's people. It is feasible that irrigation of deserts and near-deserts might double the amount of irrigated land available with relatively few major engineering problems. Irrigation in humid regions may raise food production significantly by decreasing losses due to drought and extending the growing season. With irrigation many agricultural regions could produce two crops annually instead of only one.

Although the amount of land available for crop and animal production is definitely limited, the amount of food which can be produced per acre of land seems almost unlimited. At least we do not know just what factor will prove to be the ultimate limit to yield. How many bushels of corn, potatoes, or rice can be produced per acre under optimum conditions? Agricultural research is constantly striving to find what these optimum conditions are.

Agricultural extension workers are at the same time training producers to make use of what is already known. For instance, it has been demonstrated that rice yields in Thailand can be increased 20 per cent merely by using improved varieties (6). The use of better varieties is only one of a multitude of measures which will increase yield. Use of a combination of improvements may increase yield more than the sum of each improvement without the other. In Thailand a combination of improved rice varieties and optimum applications of fertilizer increased yields more than the sum of the increases from either used alone.

In recent years, yields of corn, wheat, oats, and barley have increased from 10-25 per cent per acre even in countries with advanced agricultural methods. Hybrid corn has increased production in the United States by 20 per cent. Hybridization has increased mushroom production 15-20 per cent in Japan (6).

The following list gives some indication of the various measures which have been used in improving yield in various parts of the world:

1. irrigation
2. fertilization 
3. use of higher yielding strains 
4. disease, insect, and rodent control 
5. more intensive agriculture
6. better cropping systems 
7. disease resistant varieties 
8 new and improved tree crops 
9. improved livestock management and feeding
10. improvement of pastures
11. artificial insemination
12. use of machinery
13. more efficient harvesting
14. land reform
15. capital loans
16. cooperative marketing
17. education of farmers
18. improved health of farmers
19. social elevation of farming
20. general improvement of economy and thus purchasing power of consumer.

In view of the limitations of conventional agriculture in meeting the food problems of the world, certain non-agricultural sources have been receiving more emphasis. Such conventional sources as fishing are being explored more thoroughly. In Central Africa, development of fesh-water fishpond projects at the family unit level of production has proven successful (2). Flooded rice fields in the Far East can easily yield 250 pounds of fish per acre per year. Western military authorities estimated that Japan could produce 500,000 tons of carp annually in her rice paddies (8).

Most of the world's fish production is obtained from the oceans of the Northern Hemisphere. The main reason for the extremely low catch in the Southern Hemisphere does not seem to be biological. Apparently the catch could be greatly improved with more efficient methods and equipment.

It has been demonstrated that another product of the ocean, plankton, made up of microscopic plants and animals, could serve as a useful source of food for ani mals or humans. It could also be extracted for its vitamin and amino acid content. Thailand is gathering over 5000 tons of plankton a year for human consumption (8).

Large scale culture of algae has been tested in various countries as a food supplement or livestock feed. The algae Chlorella is rich in vitamins and protein and an efficient converter of sunlight into food energy. Chlorella could be mass-produced at 25 to 30 cents a pound, a relatively cheap source of protein.

Production of crops in nutrient solutions has been carried out commercially on a limited scale. With adequate equipment and skilled technicians, yields up to 6 times that of conventional methods have been obtained. The United States had over 100 such nutriculture farms in commercial operation in 1953 according to Oser (8). The Robins Hydroponic Farm in Puerto Rico produces 30 tons of tomatoes per acre, with 2.5 crops each year.

The larger scale use of certain tree fruits and nuts has been advocated for feeding of livestock. The Hawaiian algaroba tree, a legume, produces 4 tons of pods per year on which cattle and chickens thrive. St. John's bread, produced by the Mediterranean carob tree, is consumed by humans, cattle, and chickens. The Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station has demonstrated that the pods of the honey locust prove to be a valuable stock feed.

The cellulose of trees can be utilized by cattle after partial hydrolysis with acid. Sweden, Norway, and Finland manufactured several million tons of hydrolyzed cellulose cattle feed during World War 11. This hydrolyzed cellulose, or wood sugar from the wood pulp industry, can be used to grow torula yeast. The yeast in turn is dried and used as a valuable protein supplement in cattle feed.

Only a few of the more tenable and proven methods of food production by non-conventional methods have been mentioned here. There have been other measures suggested which, in this fast-changing space age, cannot be relegated quickly to the realm of the improbable. Perhaps it is true that the rate of increase in food production may continue for some time in the future.

There is probably enough food presently produced in the world to sustain 2 billion people provided all the food were divided equally. Warne (6) estimates 3 billion people could presently be sustained on an Asiatic level of living. However, food waste in harvest, processing, storage, distribution, and consumption is high. It is estimated to amount in bulk to some 20 per cent of the total world production (2). In many underdeveloped areas it is much higher due to inefficiency aggravated by environmental conditions. Some of the inefficiency resulting in waste is due to production on a family unit basis. The small production unit is particularly unsuited to handling highly perishable products such as meat, milk, eggs, and perishable fruits and vegetables. In many cases because of the low pur chasing power of the local community and the lack of processing and transportation facilities, large quantities of such products are lost. Perhaps one of the greatest needs in such areas is that of efficient means of food preservation. If this produce could be processed or preserved in some way, the first big step toward more adequate distribution both in time and space could be made.

Recent methods of preservation by use of antibiotics and by use of ionizing radiation may hold great promise for underdeveloped areas, especially where equipment costs can be kept reasonable.

There is general agreement that food distribution on a world-wide basis is not politically and economically advisable at the present time. Not only are world markets adversely affected, but in some cases the local economy suffers when food, particularly donated food, enters the market. Davis (4) presents the problems encountered in the United States surplus food donation program. The establishment and maintenance of a distribution system is complicated, especially in the underdeveloped areas. The cost and problems of local distribution are quite severe in some poorly equipped and staffed centers. This problem is aggravated by the fluctuation in volume and kind of food handled. In many cases the recipients are not acquainted with the value and use of foods they receive. Other times they may become suspicious of the donor, especially when social acceptance of hunger is widespread. Despite such problems, the United States donated over 2 billion pounds of food overseas in 1958, in many cases also paying the complete cost of transportation as well.

Some individuals, such as Dr. Bigwood, are not troubled by the farm surplus problem in such countries as the United States. "Surplus production, wherever possible, will have to be accelerated at a maximum possible speed, for purposes of distribution to the underprivileged areas" (2).

Perhaps this attitude should be taken more seriously in view of the limitations of much of the world. Distribution of food does help meet the immediate problem and buy time toward meeting the more basic problems of local production, preservation, and distribution. Summary

Food experts generally express a guarded optimism concerning the future balance of food and population. This is partly the result of study of the way in which food production has been keeping pace with population and anticipation of many significant new possibilities of increasing food production. The problem of feeding the world involves quality aspects as well as quantity considerations. The improvement of quality of diet, especially in relation to animal protein and vitamins, has proven to be especially difficult. The food dilemma will be solved only through coordinated efforts in the areas of production, nutrition, processing, and distribution coupled with necessary changes in the economic and cultural framework of underfed regions.

The author wishes to thank Dr. F. S. Deatherage, Department of Agricultural Biochemistry, and Dr. K. R. Richardson, Department of Physiological Chemistry, for permission to prepare and present this paper while engaged as a NSF research fellow under their departments at the Ohio State University.

                    Literature Cited

1. Bennett, Merrill K. The World's Food; A Study of the Interrelationships of World Population, National Diets, and Food Potentials. New York: Harper, 1954.

2. Bigwood, E. J. "Problems of animal nutrition in underdeveloped areas," in Panel Vl: Animal nutrition and food production; Fifth International Congress on Nutrition, Washington, D. C., September, 1960.

3. Boyd-Orr, John. The White Man's Dilemma; Food and the Future. London: Allen and Unwin, 1953.
4. Davis, Howard P. "Sharing our bounty," in Food: The Yearbook of Agriculture, 1959, Washington, D. C.: USDA.
5. Freeman, Orville L. Address before National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh, Pa., March 23, 1961.
6. Hatt, Paul K., Editor. "World population and future resources": Proceedings of the Second Centennial Academic Conference of Northwestern University, 1951, New York: American Book Co., 1952.
    Chapter 6. J. Russell Whitaker, "World land resources
for agriculture."
Chapter 7. William E. Warne, "Water resources for agriculture."
Chapter 8. J. J. Christensen, "Technologies of increasing food production."
Chapter 9. Paul S. Galtsoff, "Food resources of the ocean.
Chapter 10. Paul B. Sears, "Cultural factors in food production."
Chapter 11. Dennis A. Fitzgerald, "World food needs and resources."
7. Lansbury, T. J. "Animal protein production in West Africa with special reference to the use of oil seed by-products in poultry production." West African journal of Biological Chemistry 4:71-78 (1961).

8. Oser, Jacob. Must Men Starve? The Malibusian Controversy. London: Cape, 1956.

9. Philips, Ralph W. "Feeding 6,280 million," in Foods The Yearbook of Agriculture, 1959. Washington, D. C.: USDA.
10. Schaefer, Arnold E. "We need an integrated effort to improve world nutriton." Monthly News Bulletin, Ohio State University Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology; June, 1961, pages 73-74.

11. United States Department of Agriculture. The World Agricultural Situations 1961. Washington, D.C.: Foreign Agriculture Service ofthe USDA, 1960.

12. Williams, Robert R. "The classical deficiency diseases," in Panel VII: Three hours around the world-new possibilities in nutrition research; Fifth International Congress on Nutrition, Washington, D. C., September, 1960.