During the height of the coronavirus lockdown, with a substantial portion of the world’s population in quarantine and the global economy sliding toward a deep economic recession, most of us still ate our fill every evening. We should rejoice in this miracle. Hunger, which has accompanied humanity from our beginnings, has practically disappeared. Isolated cases of malnutrition—but not of famine—remain, due to local conflict and extreme forms of poverty, themselves on their way to remission.
Since 1970, world population has doubled—but food production has tripled. In 1970, India was known as “the famine continent,” and the economic literature was uniformly pessimist, an echo of the writings of Thomas Malthus, who proclaimed 170 years earlier an inevitable contradiction between demographic growth and agricultural growth. Humanity escapes this proclaimed fate, thanks to science and commerce—the two foundations of progress, including agricultural progress.
Science has made it possible for 1.5 billion farmers to nourish 7.7 billion people. Science progresses by leaps, from one paradigm to another—from the steam engine to the electrical motor, and from there to electronic technology. The same is true for what fills our plates. After the selection of species comes their hybridization; from hybridization, we leap to genetically modified organisms. These GMOs have yet to fulfill their promise, having so far improved only the yields of corn and soy, foundations of the food industry. We don’t yet know whether ideological resistance to GMOs will permit future progress in this area, especially concerning wheat.
What saved us from famine was the 1970s Green Revolution: a combination of species selection, hybridization, and the application of farming techniques such as irrigation and fertilization. When these techniques were applied to wheat and rice, average yields tripled, especially in India, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The leaders of this revolution, which we do not celebrate enough, were two agronomists: Norman Borlaug, a Texan who transformed wheat cultivation in his laboratory near Mexico City; and M. S. Swaminathan, an Indian from Chennai who applied Borlaug’s method to rice in a laboratory near Manila. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 (Swaminathan was overlooked). Never was the Nobel Peace Prize more deserved—or so soon forgotten.
Progress is seldom, if ever, unanimously welcomed. Activist groups in India and the United States have blamed Borlaug and the Green Revolution for creating new inequalities. It’s true that all Indian peasants were equally poor and hungry before the Green Revolution. Those who applied Borlaug’s recommendations became more prosperous than those who stuck to the old methods. It’s easy to achieve equality when there is nothing to distribute; leftists seem to prefer scarcity to plenty if plenty implies unequal portions. The same people who condemned the Green Revolution now oppose GMOs. Their ancestors, in the early nineteenth century, justified destroying new textile machines using the same arguments. Science progresses; ideologies spin their wheels.
The Green Revolution would not have been enough to nourish the world without the commercial revolution that accompanied it. In eighteenth-century France, the provinces that produced wheat surpluses could not export their grains to neighboring provinces without multiple bureaucratic authorizations; the resulting famines led straight to the 1789 revolution. Little has changed today, but the scale is planetary. Certain states, in the name of “alimentary sovereignty”—the European Union, in particular—attempt to restrain commerce in grains. Luckily, they have little success. Commerce in foods has multiplied six times in the last 30 years, while the price of meat, wheat, and cereals continues to drop. Overall, four-fifths of humanity is fed by calories originating in another country. Eating “local” and “organic” is a pleasant luxury reserved for privileged consumers. And to the great disappointment of the Left, the brokers who move food from regions of surplus to regions in need are capitalist businesses—such as Cargill, based in Minnesota, or even Beijing’s COFCO.
Wholesale prices are currently rising, due to the slowing down of international commerce. The victims will be the fraction of the global population—about 10 percent—that suffers from malnutrition. The worst solutions would be to restrain international commerce in the name of national sovereignty or to block research in the name of a sacralized Nature. What the world needs is more Borlaugs and Swaminathans and more trade. Nationalism, socialism, and the fashion for organic foods do not feed people. Science and capitalism—neither moral nor immoral in themselves—make it possible for everyone to eat what he needs. And that is moral.
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