For centuries we have taken for granted the natural processes governing the planet. Often we disregard the consequences of using such processes to our advantage despite not fully understanding how they function. On the surface, humanity seems to have food production under control- yet where plants are concerned it is what is on the inside that counts.
Beginning with the birth of the first Agricultural Revolution when our ancestors were able to control the growth cycles of plants and livestock, humans have successfully expanded their numbers to every corner of the globe. While understanding the mechanisms of production through breeding, maintaining and storing supplies, expansions for many populations remained steady.
Many centuries later, academic scholars would analyse the historical time line of farming to predict what the future of civilized earth might look like. One such writer painted a grim future for humanity, who in the early nineteenth century foresaw a possible outcome of tragic suffering.
Economist and demographer Thomas Malthus is best known for his work titled An Essay on the Principle of Population, where he argues that the overpopulation of a species would rival the limited resources of the earth resulting in famine, poverty and a battle for what remains. Specifically, he wrote that food production can only increase arithmetically, while human populations can grow exponentially (much faster), causing shortages in food as a resource.
Malthus referred to the potential crisis as a Malthusian Catastrophe, where a whole collapse of populations would occur naturally to bring back stability to the area. During the years around his death in 1834, the human population was a modest 1 billion. He would suggest that people monitor and control birth rates to avoid such a catastrophe from happening.
After Malthus’ time, however, through new farming techniques and technologies that introduced much faster methods of growing large amounts of food, humans appeared to have corrected the issue of food shortage through another Agricultural Revolution. This would suggest to some that Malthus was inaccurate in his predictions because our advancements helped to solve old problems.
Why is it then that a startling 85 percent of Americans have been found to be malnourished? Ranking as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States is home to many people who over-eat and yet are lacking the essential nutrients they need to function at full potential. Even Europe as a whole faces serious malnutrition threats as levels of obesity continue to rise. In just one 2012 vitamin study, 44% of Europeans were found to be deficient in iodine.
Reports often associate such trends with poverty, poor diet choices or lack of understanding about healthy lifestyles. Those beliefs are surely accurate, and have each been serious issues for as long as we have been able to recognize what malnutrition is. However, another serious factor that has recently been gaining attention has begun to give Malthus’ warnings far more plausibility.
The actual nutritional content of our foods is found to be falling- and it is a global pattern that studies show to be worsening. Plants obtain their essential minerals through the way they are grown, largely by the health of the soils in which they grow. In a study conducted over the last century, mineral content in soil has dropped, by continent 72% in Europe, 76% in Asia and 85% in North America.
Some farmlands have been so damaged that they can no longer produce food or remain suitable for keeping livestock. In just 40 years, the total global amount of soil deemed unproductive, depleted by erosion factors was 30%. This loss in productivity also has serious economic effects that have been recorded in billions of dollars per country.
So why are our soils showing signs of heading in the direction of worsening over time? With our modern methods of farming, we have actually been growing too much too fast, using unsustainable practices that have not given enough time to minerals for recycling themselves using natural processes. Crop rotation, a traditional method that allows soils to replenish their health by intentionally giving plots of land intervals where they are not used is now often bypassed to save time and money.
With the addition of overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, the balance of nutrients has been aggravated as some are lost while others have become too abundant. Monoculture, a practice of growing only one type of plant on a large piece of land is now widespread despite it being unnatural and unhealthy for soils that are adapted to varieties of species growing together. There are also issues with genetically modified crops or GMOs, which require new herbicides and pesticides with unknown impacts. They also contaminate microorganism genes within the soil through both crops and seeds.
Food crises globally have already resulted in famines and food shortages worldwide. If soils become so depleted that most land is no longer healthy enough to use, the problem will become exacerbated. Even when yields appear to be abundant, their nutritional structures may be so reduced that consuming large amounts will still not be sufficient to stay healthy.
How should humanity resolve the issue before it’s too late? There are many modern and traditional practices that respect the needs of soils, and keep water sources healthy and less prone to drought. Using methods such as aeroponics, aquaponics and hydroponics, soils stay healthy through sustainable methods, are minimally needed or not needed at all. Switching to organic growing, avoiding chemicals and planting varieties of plants keep things thriving naturally. Many new techniques can also be practiced indoors and locally further reducing human impact.
Thomas Malthus did not foresee farming advancements that would lead to an abundance of food, giving rise to populations on a worldwide scale. But he did understand that without thoughtful population management and more careful practices, we would eventually run into problems that we could not reverse.