Global Hunger: Three Christmas Ghost Stories


  • Author: Chris Smaje
  • Date: 13 Dec 2013
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStock Photo

Given that Yuletide is upon us this article is a ghost story in three parts, with all due apologies to Charles Dickens. It also contains facts about global hunger and poverty, always worth reflecting on in this season of excess. And it’s about how social scientists move between facts and stories, a question at the heart of social statistics that is endlessly worthy of attention.

thumbnail image: Global Hunger: Three Christmas Ghost Stories

But first, some facts...

According to the UN, around 870 million of the world’s 7.1 billion people were suffering chronic undernourishment from 2010-2012 – mainly the poorer people in the world’s poorer countries, in which there are something like 800 million people who live on less than $1 a day (1). Another face of malnutrition is chronic overnourishment, which affects another billion or so – mainly the poorer people in the world’s richer countries. But the hunger trend is on a downward curve, with 12% of the world’s population now undernourished, compared to 19% from 1990-1992 (2). And starvation is now rare, mostly being confined to situations of war or natural disaster. Even those who earn as little as $1 a day don’t necessarily increase their expenditures on more calories when they come into a bit of extra cash, preferring instead to increase the quality of their food (rice instead of millet, meat instead of wheat) (3).

A few more facts: over approximately the last 200 years, the global population has increased about sevenfold, while global food supplies have increased tenfold and, despite considerable volatility, the general trend in food prices has been downwards (4,5). The trend in yields of the key global cereal crops has been upwards over the same period, but with the rate of yield increase slowing over the last few decades (6). In some countries, such as India, people are eating less food on average than in the past, despite reporting lower levels of hunger (3). In most countries, rural populations are declining and urban ones rising although in sub-Saharan Africa both rural and urban populations are rising. In that region, there has been a downward trend in land area available to rural farm households – among whom globally the majority of the poorest people are to be found. But even in sub-Saharan Africa, ultra-poverty rates (the proportion earning less than $1.25/day) have been in decline since the 1990s, just as they have in East Asia since the 1980s (5). Access to sanitation and clean water is increasing globally, although this is patchy – open defecation is more common in India than in relatively less wealthy sub-Saharan Africa, and though it’s more common in the Indian countryside than in urban areas, open defecation interacts with population density as variables independently associated with stunted childhood growth (7).

In the two preceding paragraphs, I’ve tried to present some facts while avoiding any causal inferences. However, the essence of social science is in proceeding from fact to narrative – using data to tell a story about how and why things happened as they did, and maybe about how things may unfold in the future.

The three ghosts of Thomas Malthus

And that brings us to our ghost stories. The Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) has haunted the issues of global population, poverty and hunger since he published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. It was Malthus’s contention that human population was fated to rise exponentially (or ‘geometrically’ in his terms) as a result of people exercising the ‘carnal pleasures’ – he proposed a tendency for population to double every 25 years, which could have led to a 256-fold population increase over the last 200 years. But food production, he claimed, would rise only arithmetically – perhaps by a factor of 8 to 10 over the same 200 year period. Hence, the world would be engulfed by a subsistence crisis in which humanity’s prodigious numbers would be felled by famine. Notoriously, Malthus opposed poverty relief on the grounds that assisting the poor would only exacerbate the crisis when it came.

Hero to some – Charles Darwin called him a ‘great philosopher’, considering those who sneered at him incapable of understanding ‘common reason’ – and bogeyman to others – Karl Marx called him a ‘professional sycophant of the landed aristocracy’ – Malthus has always been a divisive figure. Darwin’s star shines brighter than Marx’s these days, but Marx’s judgment is probably closer to the modern view of Malthus, even though he’s still acknowledged as an important ancestor to many modern statistically-oriented disciplines such as demography, ecology and economics. Nevertheless, there are various different versions of Malthus that we might plausibly invoke as we wrestle with current issues in population, poverty and hunger. Let us stoke the Yuletide fire and await a visit from three of these ghosts.

The ghost of Malthus past

The ghost of Malthus past says Marx was right, Malthus was wrong, and the good Reverend can be relegated to nothing more than a spectral presence in the dusty recesses of intellectual history.

To expand a little, this particular ghost has both an empirical and a conceptual story to tell. The empirical story might interpret the facts laid out earlier as follows: Malthus was wrong about population – it’s increased more slowly than he predicted, and now shows signs of levelling off in the future as poor peasant farmers with large families give way to richer urban workers with small ones, a demographic transition that has successively occurred throughout the world with industrialisation, and may now be beginning in sub-Saharan Africa too. Of course it’s a scandal that 12% of the population is still undernourished, not only on the grounds of the common human decency conspicuously lacking in Malthus, but also because – contra Malthus – when people are released from the chains of poverty they are better able to produce and innovate. Yes, with each extra person there’s an extra mouth, but also an extra pair of hands and an extra brain, as is proved by the fact that increasing food production has outstripped increasing population since Malthus’s day. And, evidently, we’re slowly getting on top of the scandal of hunger. In the industrialised north, fewer and fewer farmers are producing more and more food, while the rest of the world is beginning to industrialise too – in the short-term, the abundant labour of the developing countries enables them to complement the industrialised economies with value-added, labour-intensive industries, and in the long-term they can industrialise their agricultures too. By technological development in farming and targeted interventions such as improving sanitation, it’s a reasonable hope that we can abolish hunger altogether in the future.

Social causality is never so simple. Instead, social variables such as hunger and population are enmeshed in complex webs of social cause and effect which react upon each other – rarely if ever can you identify population increase as a simple ‘cause’ of hunger.

The conceptual story is, quite simply, that Malthus made a fundamental error in making hunger a dependent variable of population. Social causality is never so simple. Instead, social variables such as hunger and population are enmeshed in complex webs of social cause and effect which react upon each other – rarely if ever can you identify population increase as a simple ‘cause’ of hunger. But it could perhaps be added that some social scientists stretch the critique and the definition of Malthusianism a long way. The historian Guy Bois, for example, defines Malthusianism as “any model in which the principal determinants are in the last resort of a demographic order” (8). Social scientists are indeed social scientists – they tend to dislike explanations for social events that invoke exogenous environmental variables which are not themselves complexly social. We’ll return to this point during our next ghost’s visit.

The ghost of Malthus present

The ghost of Malthus present admits that the old man got a few things wrong but, looking around the world today, still sees mileage in his analysis. For one thing, Malthus was only half wrong with his two key predictions – his projections concerning the increase in food production were pretty much spot on. He didn’t foresee technical developments like fertiliser synthesis and plant genomics, and it may be that similar step changes in agricultural productivity beckon in the future. All that we can say at present, however, is that there is probably little more land available globally for arable or pastoral agriculture, yield increases are slowing down, and there may be diminishing returns to crop improvement – after all, you can only invent major productivity improvements like synthetic fertiliser once.

And for all that Malthus is mocked for his over-gloomy presentiments about a future of famine and want, perhaps we should also bear in mind that there are almost as many people alive today suffering from undernourishment as existed worldwide when Malthus wrote his Essay. This is not for lack of the capacity to grow food, as Malthus predicted. Indeed, a major part of the problem rather is the overproduction of food, both in the heavily subsidised staple-based agricultures of the industrialised north, whose cheap calories undermine local agriculture in the poorer countries and feed obesity in the richer ones, and in tropical cash crops, where the saturation of global markets pushes down the prices obtained by poor farmers to the level of penury (9).

In this respect, much of the anti-Malthusian literature about the capacity of technology to overcome food shortages misses the point that what’s really required is not better technologies but better economies. The fact that global undernourishment has declined by a few percentage points over the last 20 years is to be welcomed of course, but it’s a low bar to set in judging the global economic system. Perhaps we can reinterpret the figures cited above in this light. Europe beat subsistence crises by industrialising, and it looks like East Asia is now doing the same, but it doesn’t follow that this is a game in which everyone can ultimately be a winner. As one industrial core rises, others are likely to decline, and some people stay marginalised: in sub-Saharan Africa the rural population and rural poverty remain high because for the most part there are few urban jobs to buy people out of subsistence farming, and the land available to farmers remains low not only because of a high rural population but also because of land grabs and the dominance of export-oriented cash cropping which benefits local people little (10). Economic growth rates are high in Africa, but at no point in the last 30 years has the proportion of the population in sub-Saharan Africa in extreme poverty (<$1.25/day) dipped below 50% (5). Meanwhile, even in rapidly industrialising India the 2011 census found that more than half the households in the country had no access to a toilet and had to defecate in the open (7) (this being associated with long-term stunted growth – and therefore possibly also lower dietary needs).

So Malthus was wrong that aggregate food demand would outstrip supply by pure demographic logic. All the same, there’s a chronic mismatch between demand and supply, which our economic system seems scarcely able to correct. Moreover, although there’s little evidence at present of any looming Malthusian crisis worldwide, there are various examples from the past and the present of crises in specific places in which available resources have failed to match population need...

So Malthus was wrong that aggregate food demand would outstrip supply by pure demographic logic. All the same, there’s a chronic mismatch between demand and supply, which our economic system seems scarcely able to correct. Moreover, although there’s little evidence at present of any looming Malthusian crisis worldwide, there are various examples from the past and the present of crises in specific places in which available resources have failed to match population needs (the Sahel is a present case in point) (11). Critics object along similar lines to Guy Bois that these crises are always social as well as purely demographic or environmental – often involving histories of colonialism and power struggles over resources. This seems to be a criticism levelled at Jared Diamond’s neo-Malthusian popular history of civilisational collapse (12). Indeed, perhaps one region’s Malthusian crisis is another’s economic rent, but then perhaps colonial relations can be regarded at least in part as an enforced displacement of one people’s environmental resource constraints onto another. Ultimately, whether we wish to call them ‘Malthusian’ or not, people have faced and still face potentially catastrophic resource crises.

The ghost of Malthus future

...and who’s to say such crises won’t loom larger in the years to come, says the ghost of Malthus future. Consider this: in an increasingly globalised world, in which some estimates of the total human appropriation of net primary global productivity are as high as 40% (13), the possibilities for displacing Malthusian crises onto new territories have vanished. Thus, a new Malthusian frontier opens up in the emerging literature on ‘planetary boundaries’ (14): how much carbon can we emit, how much water can we use in agriculture, how much nitrate can our soils and waterways soak up, how much agricultural soil loss can we cope with, how many wild species can we do without, before we confront a generalised global resource crisis? We know that as people become richer, their demand for meat, fossil fuels and other resource-gobbling perquisites of modern civilisation grows. That is not an argument against the right of the poorest to betterment, says Malthus’s modernised ghost, because no such argument is conscionable, and in any case it’s not the poor or the nearly poor who are the problem. But it may be an argument for us to rethink the resource basis of modern industrial civilisation. That civilisation was just coming into being when Malthus wrote his Essay, so it’s only been around for roughly 0.1% of human history. ‘Did we beat Malthus?’ is a common refrain in contemporary writings on population and hunger (5). The ghost of Malthus future replies ‘it’s far too soon to say’.


In most aspects of the social sciences, the numerical data takes us only so far – they demand a story to make them intelligible, and often more than one story fits the bill. I’ve offered three Malthusian stories here, and I reserve the storyteller’s right not to offer any easy resolutions. In popular writings, Malthus is often invoked nowadays as little more than a cipher for pessimism, and in academic writings as a cipher for exogenous environmental causation. Extreme proponents of both Malthusianism and anti-Malthusianism share an almost religious certitude about the character of our species – humanity has overreached itself and will be punished by a vengeful nature, or humanity has godlike powers and will inevitably prevail over natural constraints. For them, Malthus has but one ghost. For the rest of us, there may be several of them with which we still have to contend.




(3) Banerjee, A. & Duflo, E. (2011) Poor Economics, London: Penguin.

(4) Denison, F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Cornell: Cornell University Press



(7) Spears, D. (2013) “The nutritional value of toilets: How much international variation in child height can sanitation explain?”

(8) Bois, G. (1985) ‘Against the neo-Malthusian orthodoxy’ in T. Aston & C. Philpin (Eds) The Brenner Debate, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(9) Robbins, P. (2003) Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster, London: Zed.

(10) Cotula, L. (2013) The Great African Land Grab?, London: Zed.

(11) Potts, M. et al (2013) ‘The Sahel: a Malthusian challenge?’ Environmental and Resource Economics, 55: 501-12.

(12) Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse, London: Penguin; Yoffee, N. ed (2009) Questioning Collapse, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


(14) Kosoy, N. et al (2012) ‘Pillars for a flourishing Earth: planetary boundaries, economic
growth delusion and green economy’ Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 4: 74-79.

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