Humanity’s longest struggle has been the ongoing battle, waged with different weapons on different fronts, adequately to feed itself. The British scholar Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) doubted humanity’s chances. Writing in 1798, he concluded that “the period when the number of men surpass their means of subsistence has long since arrived.” The result, Malthus predicted, would be “misery and vice.” On the whole, Malthus has been proven wrong, at least until now. As the India-born Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen pointed out in 1994, world population had by then grown nearly six times since Malthus first published his “Essay on Population.” And yet per person food consumption had increased, life expectancies lengthened, and standards of living generally improved. A significant factor was the “Green Revolution,” pioneered by the agronomist and Nobel peace laureate Norman Borlaug (1914–2009), a name that appears throughout these pages.
But the contest between population and food supply has not yet been definitively won. “It took the world population millions of years to reach the first billion, then 123 years to get to the second, 33 years to the third, 14 years to the fourth, 13 years to the fifth billion…” writes Sen. The human population today stands at an estimated 6.8 billion, of whom an estimated 1.02 billion are undernourished (PDF, 425KB). How we fashion a 21st-century agriculture capable of feeding them is the subject of this eJournal USA.
The marriage of technical prowess and agricultural skill promises advances on many fronts: a greater abundance of food, much of it more healthful, and available in a global marketplace that affords more of us access to this bounty. Agriculture even holds a key to delivering new forms of clean energy.
The voices collected here include scientists, administration officials, and Indian and American winners of the World Food Prize. All are united in what Dr. Borlaug in his Nobel acceptance speech called a “vast army” in the battle against hunger. More broadly, 21st-century agriculture represents a noble application of our collective human ingenuity. May victory in this struggle come soon.