Malthus Revisited: The Coming Global Food Wars

14 mins. to read
Malthus Revisited: The Coming Global Food Wars

The return of Malthusian determinism

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was an English parson who wrote a seminal work of classical economics, An Essay on the Principal of Population (published 1798), which still provokes controversy today.

Malthus argued that the well-being of a population depends on sustainable food production − but that success in agriculture also inevitably leads to a rise in population, increasing the demand for food, with the result that humanity endlessly chases its own tail in an effort to ensure sufficient food supplies. Essentially, Malthus believed that famine is the mechanism which maintains an equilibrium between the supply and demand for foodstuffs in a given geography.

Malthusian determinism, bleak though it is, has never been definitively debunked. However, from the late classical economists of the Ricardo School (named after David Ricardo, 1772-1823) until the present, economists have presumed that Malthus got it wrong.

Firstly, he did not anticipate that agricultural productivity (the ratio of outputs to inputs) would increase dramatically, thanks to persistent advances in agricultural technology. Secondly, he did not foresee that global trade in agricultural commodities (globalisation, if you will) would increase exponentially in the century after his death and beyond. (Interestingly, the principal case study that Ricardo used in the development of his theory of comparative advantage, was the export of wine from Portugal to England, in return for the export of wool from England to Portugal). Thirdly, Malthus could not have foreseen how efficiently modern supply chains would convey foodstuffs from farms to supermarket shelves, and the economies of scale that would accrue.

Malthus was writing before anyone could conceive that agriculture would become an industry in which supply and demand would be equilibrated by the market. But now, 188 years after his death, we might consider why his philosophy is more pertinent than ever.

Ukraine: a question of grain

Let’s remember that Ukraine’s strategic value is precisely that it is Europe’s grain basket – and that it has critical access to the Black Sea, and from there, via the Bosphorus, to the Mediterranean. Peter the Great established Russian control over Ukraine further to the Battle of Poltava (1709); but Hitler tried to conquer the country in the 1940s in his bid for ‘Lebensraum’ in the east. He planned to repopulate much of the Ukraine with Aryan young bloods from, amongst elsewhere, Holland. It is of interest that many Ukrainian farms are now worked by Dutch interestsi – something that will not have gone unnoticed in Russia. The Russia-Ukraine war is essentially the first food war of the post-modern era.

The Ukrainians cannot ship the estimated 20-25 million tonnes of grain (barley, wheat and maize) stored in silos to destinations in north Africa and beyond because two of their most important container ports, Kherson and Mariupol, are now under Russian control, and a third, Mykolaiv, is under siege. Even if the Ukrainians could ship grain consignments out of Odesa, their major Black-Sea port has been subject to Russian missile attacks, the surrounding seas are mined (some mines being Ukrainian) and Russian warships are on patrol.

On Tuesday, the Zelensky government called for the Royal Navy to enter the Black Sea to relieve the blockade of Odesa – and on the same day George Soros, in Davos, warned that the conflict could precipitate World War III. In fact, the Bosphorus is now closed to warships since Turkey invoked the 1936 Montreux Convention back in late February, so British or American naval vessels cannot enter the Black Sea even if Johnson and Biden commanded them to.

The yield on the late spring harvest will be well down on last year for obvious reasons. But where will the new grain be stored if the existing silos are already full? It might be possible to transport grain by rail across the Polish border and thence to the Polish Baltic ports, especially Gdansk; but there are bottlenecks on the rail network in western Ukraine which is in any case under persistent Russian attack. Moreover, the Ukrainian and Polish railway networks operate on different gauges, so cargo must be transferred from Ukrainian to Polish wagons at the border. Another route is to transport grain by barge along the Danube – and this is now underway, though capacity is limited.

Furthermore, the Russian army is systematically destroying Ukrainian agricultural machinery and buildings. This suggests that Putin wants to inflict lasting damage on Ukraine’s capacity to export grain and other foodstuffs to the world. Even vineyards have been subject to missile attacks, and a major wine bottling plant at Hostomel, just outside Kyiv, was destroyed during the Russian siege of the capital. Stalin starved Ukraine into submission during the Holodomor (1932-33), so the Russians have form in this regard, as the Polish prime minister observed this week.

Last year, Poland had a foretaste of the current Russian strategy to weaponise the refugee crisis by flying in asylum seekers to the Belarus-Poland border. The Russian strategy in Ukraine now seems to be to multiply that one hundredfold by precipitating widespread hunger in north Africa and beyond. A new wave of the ongoing migration crisis is inevitable. This is all part of the Putin doctrine of hybrid warfare against the west.

This war of aggression by the Putin regime has turned into a war of attrition with no imminent prospect of military victory by either side. But Putin and his acolytes know that the longer the war drags on, the more dire will be the impact on the global food chain. On Tuesday (24 May) Putin said that Russia is prepared for a protracted war in Ukraine. Maybe that was the plan all along.

The supposition by most western observers in the first days of the war was that the Russians would ‘blitzkrieg’ Ukraine and take Kyiv within days. Instead, the Russians stalled. We are now in the fourth month of the conflict. But over the last week the Russian campaign in the Donbas appears to have made advances. Severodonesk is in imminent danger of encirclement. The Russians already control a land corridor from Luhansk to the Crimea. If they push westwards along the Black-Sea coast to take Odesa, that could prove fatal. Ukraine might survive the loss of its eastern provinces, but a Ukraine without Odesa would no longer be an economically viable state.

The view from Davos

In Davos this week, veteran foreign-policy expert Henry Kissinger, who will celebrate his hundredth birthday next year, called for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine, referring to the possibility that Ukraine might have to cede territory to Russia. He argued that Russia had been an integral part of the European states system for over 400 years and the western powers would have to find a way of living with Russia which would most likely involve Ukraine becoming a neutral buffer state. We must be careful not to push Russia into the unyielding embrace of China, he intimated.

Dr Kissinger is concerned that the outcome of the present conflict could herald a more unstable and potentially confrontational world. If Russia is defeated in Ukraine, it may become even more resentful and inclined towards revisionism than it is today. On the other hand, if Russia is allowed to triumph, that would surely embolden China to seize Taiwan and the principle of “might is right” will be resurrected in international affairs. This week, at the Quad summit in Tokyo, President Biden appeared to move away from America’s historic stance of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan, thus raising tensions with China.

It seems that Emmanuel Macron in Paris and Olaf Scholz in Berlin devoutly wish a speedy end to the war and a reversion to some kind of ‘normal’ relationship with Russia. In contrast, Boris Johnson in London and the Biden administration in Washington understand that there can be no going back to the status quo ante bellum – the world has changed, fundamentally. The latter’s doctrine is that Putin must fail. As for the frontline states of eastern Europe, they fear that if Putin wins this war, they could be the next target. On Wednesday, the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, said in a speech in Stockholm that Ukraine must deal with Russia from a position of strength to avoid a “bad peace” which would be “much more dangerous” for us all.

Cracks are appearing in the edifice of western solidarity. Dr Kissinger’s speech was seen to undermine Ukraine’s negotiating position and has provoked bitter recrimination from President Zelensky. Italy and Hungary urged the EU on Wednesday to call for a ceasefire and peace talks at next week’s European Council summit. In Washington last week, 11 senators and 53 congressmen voted against the Biden administration’s latest $40bn aid package to Ukraine.

The Russians will be watching closely to determine whether the western pack remains united and at what point sanctions might be relaxed. I predict that, if and when there is a ceasefire, the issue of how long to maintain sanctions against Russia will become a major political fissure between Old Europe (the EU’s original six members) and New Europe (the eastern countries which acceded to the EU in 2003).

The challenge of food security

Also in Davos this week, David Beasley, chief executive of the UN’s World Food Programme, warned that 325 million people around the world were at risk of going hungry as a direct result of Russia’s war in Ukraine. David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy, was even more pessimistic. He said that 1.7 billion people across 94 countries are at risk of severe hunger as food prices surge. Further, Sara Menker, chief executive of Gro Intelligence, told the United Nations last week that “We currently only have ten weeks of global consumption sitting in inventory around the world.”

In a clear sign of how food security – which I have written about extensively – has moved up the political agenda. It emerged this week that the UK government is to introduce legislation to permit the planting of genetically modified crops in the UK. The US and Japan have already permitted gene editing in agricultural commodities, but the practice remains taboo in the EU. Given the justified banning of pesticides such as nicotinoids – which blight pollinators such as bees – yields on oil-seed rape (colza) have fallen by 30 percent in recent years. If rapeseed could be reprogrammed better to resist pests, then pesticides might be rendered entirely unnecessary.

According to IMF research, since the war in Ukraine started, around 30 countries have restricted trade in food, energy and other key commodities. This has been exacerbated by severe weather – a heatwave in northern India, and droughts in North and South America supposedly caused by the La Niña effect. India is no longer exporting wheat to its neighbour, Bangladesh. The consequences of this will be felt in short order.

The IMF, the WHO and the rest think that in order to forestall a global food crunch, nations must re-commit to globalisation, to maintain a multiplicity of agricultural supply chains. But paradoxically, as nations embark on food-security policies, they will seek to restrict the export of food commodities required at home and impose tariffs on imported foodstuffs which undercut indigenous producers.

Happily, Britain has a host of biotechnology companies working on the gene editing of agricultural commodities, not least the cluster centred in and around the Cambridge Science Park. I hope to report on this soon.

Weak links

Sri Lanka is staring into the abyss of total social and economic collapse after years of poor governance. (And, by the way, trendy organic farming methods are compulsory there, thus slashing crop yields). Last Friday, the country defaulted on its debts for the first time. Sri Lanka owes £27bn but has less than £1m remaining in the bank. Reportedly, many pensioners are struggling to live on a handful of rice per day.

But Sri Lanka is not alone. According to the World Bank and the IMF, about a dozen developing countries are at risk of economic meltdown. The IMF estimates that 60 percent of low-income countries, including Egypt, Tunisia and Pakistan are in or near default – up from 30 percent in 2015. This is partly because the pandemic forced them to increase expenditure while tax revenues fell, and partly because the cost of servicing their dollar-denominated debt is now rising rapidly.

Also, countries like Sri Lanka which derive a large amount of their national income from tourism are still not getting pre-pandemic levels of foreign visitors. Low-income countries have been hit by soaring energy and food prices just like high-income countries – but are much less able to absorb the shock. Already, there is thought to be widespread hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.

Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa are also a cause for concern. In Latin America, the finances of Argentina and El Salvador look parlous, while Peru is facing a fertiliser shortage which has precipitated social unrest. In 2020, the largest buyers of Ukrainian wheat were Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Lebanon. Egypt’s second devaluation in eight years makes imported foodstuffs even more expensive. All these countries are now in a state of acute food insecurity.

There will be a wave of sovereign defaults this year, heralded of course by that of Russia.

Was Malthus right?

And then there is the matter of global demographics and the expansion of the number of people on the planet from the 7.95 billion alive as I write (according to the Worldometer Population Clock) to the 9-9.5 billion expected by mid-century. On Wednesday this week alone, the world’s population increased by 171,000 (that’s births minus deaths).

Most of the increase in population will take place in the developing world, especially Africa, where birth rates are still high. If present trends continue, much of the developed world, especially western Europe, will experience population growth too, attributed entirely to mass migration from the global south.

It is unlikely that enough new land could be brought into cultivation in the next 28 years to feed those extra mouths without large-scale environmental despoilation and drastically abandoning our commitments to reduce carbon emissions.

Unless there are transformative technological innovations, including gene editing (CRISPR) in crops, vertical farming and lab-produced meat, the food challenge will become more pressing. Of course, we might be persuaded to eat less – but I can’t see a politician getting elected on that platform. The last major famine was the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, which inspired Live Aid and a general commitment that such a calamity should never happen again. And yet it now could.

Malthus was writing just at the start of the industrial revolution and failed to foresee its extraordinary consequences. But the steep increase in agricultural productivity may now be under threat from climate change; and, thanks to food protectionism, the preparedness of surplus producers to ship goods abroad may be restricted henceforth. Agricultural supply lines are under extreme stress. Malthus foresaw the need for birth control, advocating, amongst other things, later marriage. We should revisit his thesis.

Asymmetric intelligibility

This is a term in linguistics used to describe populations which are bilingual in cognate languages but where one part of the population is largely bilingual, and the other part is largely monolingual. Most Russians speak Russian only; but most Ukrainians are bilingual in both Ukrainian and Russian. This gives Ukrainians a sense of identity and separateness from Russia which is not obvious to Russians who visit the country or live there. Ukrainians may therefore understand Russians better than Russians understand Ukrainians.

Less gravely, Americans and Brits experience asymmetric intelligibility. As a young man I went to one of the old-style delis in New York where people queue (make a line) at the counter. I asked to buy a tin of tuna. The no-nonsense New Yorker behind the counter told me he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Of course, I should have asked for a can of tuna. Worryingly, I now talk about cans instead of tins – what does that tell us?

Brits know what elevators are; but Americans don’t know what lifts are. We know what they mean when they go to the gas station to fill up the gas tank at the gas pump; but they can’t get it when we go to the garage (French word!) to fill up our tanks with petrol. We understand their language better than they understand ours. That is evident in the way the Washington elite cannot fathom why the Northern Ireland protocol undermines the Belfast Agreement.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that asymmetric intelligibility might account for many of the world’s dislocations. Perhaps Brexit happened because the Europeans (sorry, the French and the Germans) thought they could understand English, when they can’t.

Multilingual democratic states are rare, though Switzerland is one. States with one official language and with many minority languages are generally called empires.


As Archers fans will know, the mood in Ambridge is turning sour. The grafters are asserting themselves, and the toffs are on the back foot. The longest-running soap in the world is never wrong about the England whose pulse it always takes so lovingly.

i Note the blog: A Dutch farmer in Ukraine.

Comments (2)

  • Andrew Dawber says:

    Another great article from my favourite journalist.

  • Bob Mackintosh says:

    Many thanks Victor for providing us with your very useful and timely compendium of facts – a most intellectually-stimulating essay. It is often speculated that Thomas Malthus’ essay was inluential in Charles Darwin developing his theory of evolution, outlined in his “The Origin of Species by Natural Selection”(i.e. evolution by ” survival of the fittest”). But in the plant and animal world it is “acceptable” (or was, before conservation became the priority) for the least fit to die off due to being predated or denied food or simply caused to be less fertile. That cannot be applied to human beings.
    Re. Ukraine, Dr Kissinger’s view seems very wise and realistic to me, although the whole thing is a real can of worms, and it is difficult how to see how the end-game can play out satisfactorily. I have alway been of the view that the US bears a lot of responsibility for the present situation, by continuing to push NATO, and missile sites, further and further east after the end of the cold war, as if it didn’t trust Russia’s new more peaceful stance at all. My opinion is that Russia has no interest in invading any more of its neighbours – unless thay ask to join NATO, with its accompanying missile sites. But the US (or at least the Biden administration) doesn’t seem to grasp this at all, and is merely exacerbating the situation by pouring more and more arms into Ukraine. Hopefully Russia’s blocking of Black Sea ports may bring the conflicting parties to the negotiating table, and cause the US to re-evaluate its postition – although that may be more wishful thinking.

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