Malthus now writing in the LA Times

The Los Angeles Times reckons it knows the causes of Ethiopia’s famines:

Simply put, the nation, in which 85% of people toil as small farmers, has reached a point where it can’t easily grow enough food to meet its needs. Although agricultural production has increased overall, it has declined per capita, according to the World Bank.

This is a complete pile of piffle. Overpopulation is not the problem:

  • Population density is about 70 people per km2 in Ethiopia. That may seem a lot – it is about twice the density of the US. But Nigeria has a population density of 142 p/km2; China 138 p/km2; Sri Lanka 316 p/km2; Rwanda 343 p/km2; South Korea 498 p/km2. There is no famine in any of those countries. So why is 70 people per square km too many in Ethiopia?
  • There was famine in Ethiopia in both the 1970s and 1980s, when the population was one third and one half, respectively, of the population today.
  • Of Ethiopia’s 113 million hectares, less than 5% is currently irrigated. Ethiopia is the water tower of East Africa, with huge natural resources. But it is one of the lowest ranked countries in the world in the use of irrigation, fertilizers, modified seeds, tractors and other technologies that would multiply agricultural production.

The problem in Ethiopia’s agriculture is not shortage of land relative to the size of the population but shortage of resources, especially money and appropriate technology.

You have to wonder at lazy journalism like this. Is there a whiff of racism in the knee-jerk assumption that Ethiopia’s problem is that there are “too many of them”?

5 thoughts on “Malthus now writing in the LA Times”

  1. Owen,

    I think you might be being a bit harsh! The passage you quote does not blame overpopulation, it just points to a declining agricultural output per capita, which is just another way of saying people are getting hungrier, which is the problem to be explained, not an explanation. The article does say that “an exploding population is one problem”. If the rate of population growth exceeds the rate of agricultural output growth, then people get hungrier, regardless of what the population density is – and regardless of whether there were famines when population levels were much lower. Why might the rate of agricultural production growth lag the rate of population growth? Because Ethiopia makes such little use of irrigation, fertilizer, modified seeds etc. So it looks to me like the LA Times story pointing to the rate of population growth fits nicely with your lack of technological progress explanation. I don’t sense a whiff of racism or knee-jerkism.

  2. Luis – you may be right; in which case I’m sorry to have been harsh. It read to me as if they were blaming overpopulation, but perhaps I have done them an injustice.

  3. Luis Enrique:

    “If the rate of population growth exceeds the rate of agricultural output growth, then people get hungrier, regardless of what the population density is – and regardless of whether there were famines when population levels were much lower.”

    Nonsene. If they have a decent paying job, they can always buy food. So the problem is: It is more profitable to sell the food to foreigners, and export it, than to sell it to the local, starving, population. If Ethiopians had jobs, less food would have been exported, and more consumed domestically.

    After all, many of the richest countries in this world relies on imports for much of their calorie needs. there is no systematic relationship between domestic food production and famine. But there are a systematic relationship between what kind of job you have and poverty, and there is a systematic relationship between poverty and hunger.

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  5. I think you are right to say it was lazy journalism for them to blame the growth in population. So the paragraph you quoted is an example of not researching enough and buying into the frequently wrong Malthusian thought/ideology.

    That said, the article struck me as more of a calling for greater privatization as complaints against the government were mentioned. The other comments you see here are generally valid though I did think you picked up on the hint of “overpopulation” talk that was there.

    I’m glad you point out Malthusianism as lazy journalism though. Time magazine at one time (not sure if it was recent or not) had an article praising China for its population control efforts. The things about China is that it proves how big a failure population control is when used as a means to protect the environment. Right now China is having less and less children so the population there is growing by smaller and smaller amounts. But pollution is growing by greater and greater amounts because it is determined by things like the number of cars and factories-which have been increasing. Thus China is having its people trade in their children for cars or electronic devices that use electricity provided by coal fired power plants. China now finds itself with record levels of pollution and is very much not an example of how to save the world.

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