The Threat of a Large-Scale Famine

EDITORIAL, 20 Dec 2021

#724 | John Scales Avery, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Threat of a Large-Scale Global Famine by the Middle of the 21st Century

Unless efforts are made to stabilize and ultimately reduce global population, there is a serious threat that climate change, population growth, and the end of the fossil fuel era could combine to produce a large-scale famine by the middle of the 21st century.

As glaciers melt in the Himalayas and the Andes, depriving India, China and South America of summer water supplies; as sea levels rise, drowning fertile rice-growing regions of Southeast Asia; as droughts reduce the food production of North America and Southern Europe; as groundwater levels fall in China, India, the Middle East and the United States; and as high-yield modern agriculture becomes less possible because fossil fuel inputs are lacking, the 800 million people who are currently undernourished may not survive at all.

Energy Inputs of Agriculture

Modern agriculture has become highly dependent on fossil fuels, especially on petroleum and natural gas. This is especially true of production of the high-yield grain varieties introduced in the Green Revolution, since these require especially large inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation.  Today, fertilizers are produced using oil and natural gas, while pesticides are synthesized from petroleum feedstocks, and irrigation is driven by fossil fuel energy. Thus agriculture in the developed countries has become a process where inputs of fossil fuel energy are converted into food calories.

Predictions of Drought in the Stern Review

According to a report presented to the Oxford Institute of Economic Policy by Sir Nicholas Stern, areas likely to lose up to 30% of their rainfall by the 2050’s because of climate change include much of the United States, Brazil, the Mediterranean region, Eastern Russia and Belarus, the Middle East, Southern Africa and Southern Australia. Meanwhile rainfall is predicted to increase up to 30% in Central Africa, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Siberia, and much of China.

Stern and his team point out that,

“We can… expect to see changes in the Indian monsoon, which could have a huge impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most climate models suggest that the monsoon will change, although there is still uncertainty about exactly how. Nevertheless, small changes in the monsoon could have a huge impact. Today, a fluctuation of just 10% in either direction from average monsoon rainfall is known to cause either severe flooding or drought. A weak summer monsoon, for example, can lead to poor harvests and food shortages among the rural population – two-thirds of India’s almost 1.1 billion people. Heavier-than-usual monsoon downpours can also have devastating consequences…”

In some regions, melting of glaciers can be serious from the standpoint of dry-season water supplies. For example, melts from glaciers in the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas now supply much of Asia, including China and India, with a dry-season water supply. Complete melting of these glacial systems would cause an exaggerated runoff for a few decades, after which there would be a drying out of some of the most densely populated regions of the world.

Ocean Current Changes and Failure of Monsoons

It is expected that climate change will affect ocean currents, and hence also affect monsoon rainfall. We are already experiencing a diversion of the Gulf Stream due to southward currents of cold water from melting ice in the Arctic. This has caused what is known as the {North Atlantic Anomaly}. While most regions of the world are experiencing rising temperatures, the North Atlantic and several northern European countries are exceptions to this rule, and have cooled. Complete failure of the Gulf Stream would lead to much colder temperatures in Europe.

Changes in ocean currents have already lead to the failure of the West African Monsoon, and this has already produced severe food insecurity in West Africa.

In the future, climate-changed ocean currents may lead to failures of monsoons in South-east Asia, and thus damage the food supply of almost two billion people.

Falling Water Tables around the World

Under many desert areas of the world are deeply buried water tables formed during glacial periods when the climate of these regions was wetter. These regions include the Middle East and large parts of Africa. Water can be withdrawn from such ancient reservoirs by deep wells and pumping, but only for a limited amount of time.

In oil-rich Saudi Arabia, petroenergy is used to drill wells for ancient water and to bring it to the surface. Much of this water is used to irrigate wheat fields, and this is done to such an extent that Saudi Arabia exports wheat. The country is, in effect, exporting its ancient heritage of water, a policy that it may, in time, regret. A similarly short-sighted project is Muammar Qaddafi’s enormous pipeline, which will bring water from ancient sub-desert reservoirs to coastal cities.

In the United States, the great Ogallala aquifer is being overdrawn. This aquifer is an enormous stratum of water-saturated sand and gravel under-lying parts of northern Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota. The average thickness of the aquifer is about 70 meters. The rate of water withdrawal from the aquifer exceeds the rate of recharge by a factor of eight.

Thus we can see that in many regions, the earth’s present population is living on its inheritance of water, rather than its income. This fact, coupled with rapidly increasing populations and climate change, may contribute to a very serious food crisis partway through the 21st century.

Limitations on Cropland

In 1944 the Norwegian-American plant geneticist Norman Borlaug was sent to Mexico by the Rockefeller Foundation to try to produce new wheat varieties that might increase Mexico’s agricultural output. Borlaug’s dedicated work on this project was spectacularly successful. He remained with the project for 16 years, and his group made 6,000 individual crossings of wheat varieties to produce high-yield disease-resistant strains.

In 1963, Borlaug visited India, bringing with him 100 kg of seeds from each of his most promising wheat strains. After testing these strains in Asia, he imported 450 tons of the Lerma Rojo and Sonora 64 varieties – 250 tons for Pakistan and 200 for India. By 1968, the success of these varieties was so great that school buildings had to be commandeered to store the output. Borlaug’s work began to be called a “Green Revolution”. In India, the research on high-yield crops was continued and expanded by Prof. M.S. Swaminathan and his coworkers.

Despite these successes, Borlaug believes that the problem of population growth is still a serious one. “Africa and the former Soviet republics”, Borlaug states, “and the Cerrado.”  After they are in use, the world will have no additional sizable blocks of arable land left to put into production, unless you are willing to level whole forests, which you should not do. So, future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt that yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong  the next century will experience human misery that, on a sheer numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before.”

Populations Displaced by Drought and Famine

Climate change could produce a refugee crisis that is ”unprecedented in human history,” Barack Obama has warned as he stressed global warming was the most pressing issue of the age.

Speaking at an international food conference in Milan, the former US President said that rising temperatures were already making it more difficult to grow crops and rising food prices were leading to political instability.

If world leaders put aside parochial interests’ and took action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by enough to restrict the rise to one or two degrees Celsius, then humanity would probably be able to cope.

Failing to do this, Mr. Obama warned, increased the risk of catastrophic effects in the future, not only real threats to food security, but also increases in conflict as a consequence of scarcity and greater refugee and migration patterns.


The subject of population stabilization is a highly sensitive and controversial one. Nevertheless it is an issue that must be confronted if a catastrophic global famine is to be avoided. The three terrible Malthusian forces–famine, disease and war–in the end will cut down any population that exceeds its means of support.

In the first edition of his book on population, Malthus wrote:

“That population cannot increase without the means of subsistence is a proposition so evident that it needs no illustration. That population does invariably increase, where there are means of subsistence, the history of every people who have ever existed will abundantly prove. And that the superior power cannot be checked without producing misery and vice, the ample portion of these two bitter ingredients in the cup of human life, and the continuance of the physical causes that seem to have produced them, bear too convincing a testimony.”

In later editions, he modified this opinion and made it less pessimistic by allowing for the effect of preventive checks such as late marriage. Malthus considered birth control to be a form of vice, but today it is accepted as the most humane method of avoiding the grim Malthusian forces, famine, disease and war.

If we examine them in the light of current history, we can see that famine, disease and war are interlinked. War produces famine, and indeed famine has been used as an instrument of war, as we see in the conflicts now taking place in Somalia. Another link is the almost unbelievable economic cost of war.

An estimated 2.0 trillion U.S. dollars were spent on armaments in 2021. Part of this colossal sum could instead have been used to provide primary health care to all the peoples of the world, and with it, access to the information and materials needed for family planning.

Let us work together to avoid the enormous suffering that would be involved if climate change and population growth combine to produce a catastrophic global famine.


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website:

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Dec 2021.

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