The Threat of a Large-Scale Famine


John Scales Avery, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Disasters Threaten Human Civilization

Among the greatest dangers to human civilization are nuclear war and catastrophic climate change, dangers which also threaten the biosphere. In addition to these two existential threats, humans also face the threat of an extremely large-scale famine, involving billions of people, rather than millions. The beginning of this famine, which could involve much of the world’s population by 2050, can already be seen.

Food Prices Have Exploded Because of the Ukraine War

Because, in normal circumstances, both Ukraine and Russia are very large exporters of grain, the war in Ukraine has caused food prices to increase drastically in every part of the world. The United Nations is greatly concerned with the effect that this will have on poor countries.

Fossil Fuel Inputs to Agriculture

Modern high-yield agriculture requires very large inputs of fossil fuels. In their book, “Food, Land, Population and the US Economy”. Researchers David Pimental and Mario Giampietro point out that in the United States, the growing and marketing of food requires roughly ten fossil fuels calories for every food calorie. By 2050, supplies of petroleum and natural gas will be exhausted, and in any case, the use of fossil fuels must stop very quickly if we are to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Thus, high-yield modern agriculture will become impossible by the middle of the present century. This is particularly true of the Green Revolution grain varieties on which India is currently dependent.

Predictions of Drought

Many western and mid-western parts of the United States are already severely affected by drought, this situation is predicted to become worse because of increasing temperatures due to climate change. The same is true in many parts of the world, for example in eastern Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of southern Europe. The loss of agricultural output in these regions due to drought is a threat to food security.

Falling Water Tables

Falling water tables in China were the reason why China instituted its one-child policy. China has experienced many disastrous famines in the past. In the late 20th century, the Chinese government saw that water tables were falling at an alarming rate, and fearing another famine, they tried to halt their population growth by instituting a one-child policy.

In other parts of the world, water tables are also falling rapidly. For example, in the United States, the great Ogallala Aquifer is being overdrawn by a factor of eight. This enormous, shallow aquifer underlies portions of eight states.

Melting Glaciers

Glaciers will soon cease to exist in many parts of the world, for example in the Himalayas and the Andes. Both India and China rely on Himalayan glaciers for their summer water supplies, and the loss of these glaciers will severely impact food security in both China and India. Similarly, a number of countries in South America rely on glaciers in the Andes.

Rising Sea Levels

The melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions is producing sea level rise at an accelerating rate. In the Antarctic, spreading cracks in the vast Thwates glacier make scientists worried that the glacier will shatter like a windscreen, and trigger the collapse of nearby glaciers. If this happens, sea levels could increase by a very large amount, threatening all coastal cities. Even if this disaster is avoided, sea level rise will drown many fertil rice-producing regions in countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam,

Population Stabilization

If the global population is plotted as a function of time over a very long period, from neolithic times until the present, and if the use of fossil fuels is plotted on the same graph, the two curves are seen to rise suddenly and dramatically together. This raises several questions: Has the human population explosion been partially driven by the use of fossil fuels? Will the population of humans crash disastrously when fossil fuels are exhausted or prohibited?

In any case, as Malthus pointed out, no population can exceed its food supply.


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:


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 13 Jun 2022.

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