Thu, Aug 06, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Obesity and the men who defused the ‘Population Bomb’

If you want someone to blame for today’s era of plenty, look to a couple of German scientists who lived a century ago and figured out how to make endless amounts of fertilizer from the air we breathe

By Thomas Hager

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

The recent news that two-thirds of adults in the US are overweight or obese — and the number continues to grow — brings to mind a question that has bothered me since the 1970s: Why aren’t we all starving?

It was not that long ago that experts were predicting that our skyrocketing human population would outstrip its food supply, leading directly to mass famine. By now millions were supposed to be perishing from hunger every year. It was the old doom-and-gloom mathematics of Thomas Malthus at work — population shoots up geometrically, while food production lags behind. It makes eminent sense. I grew up with Malthus’ ideas brought up-to-date in apocalyptic books like The Population Bomb.

Someone, however, appears to have defused the bomb. Instead of mass starvation, we seem to be awash in food and it’s not just the US. Obesity is on the increase in Mexico. Fat-related diabetes is becoming epidemic in India. One in four people in China is overweight, more than 60 million are obese, and the rate of overweight children has increased almost 30-fold since 1985. Everywhere you look, from Buffalo to Beijing, you can see ballooning bellies.

Instead of going hungry, humans around the world on a per capita basis are eating more calories than ever before.

If you’re looking for reasons behind today’s obesity epidemic, don’t stop with the usual suspects, all of which are being trotted out by the press — fast food, trans fat, high sugar, low exercise, computer games, strange bacteria in your gut and weird molecules in your blood. I personally blame some hardwired human instinct for sitting around eating salty, greasy, sugary snacks in preference to hard physical labor. All of these factors are certainly related to the “insidious, creeping pandemic of obesity ... now engulfing the entire world,” as one gung-ho expert recently put it, but they are only bits of the puzzle.

The underlying answer is this — there’s a lot of cheap food around. Yes, walk into your local mega-grocery emporium or just about any food-selling area anywhere in the world and stare the problem in the face. There’s inexpensive, high-calorie food piled up all over the place.

Somehow we outsmarted Malthus. Food production has not only kept up with population growth, but has managed somehow to outstrip it. There are ups and downs from year to year because of the weather, and there are pockets of starvation around the world (not because of a global lack of food, but a lack of ways to transport it to where it’s needed). In general, silos are bursting.

Tonnes of food gets plowed under the ground because there’s so much of it farmers can’t get the prices they want. Tonnes of cheap food (corn, for instance) is used to create more expensive food (like steak). Lots of food means lots of grease, meat, sugar and calories. Lots of food means lots of overweight people.

If you like the idea of avoiding mass starvation — and I certainly do — you owe thanks to two groups of scientists. One group gave us the Green Revolution back around the 1980s via strains of hardy, high-yielding grains. The other figured out how to make bread out of air.

You heard me right. If you’re looking for someone to blame for today’s era of plenty, look to a couple of German scientists who lived a century ago. They understood that the problem was not a lack of food per se, but a lack of fertilizer — then they figured out how to make endless amounts of fertilizer.

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