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Déjà Vu All Over Again!

April 27, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 17

In the early 1800s, Thomas Malthus predicted we were all going to die of starvation. Somehow he decided that the human population would increase exponentially while food supplies would increase only arithmetically. Why would he decide that? He made the mistake so many others have made in assuming that the human race is somehow not part of nature—that we operate outside of it, by laws that of course will lead to certain doom.

In the middle of the 20th century, Paul and Anne Ehrlich predicted widespread famine and starvation by 1970. Nearly half a century later, they still stumble over themselves, backpedaling to save some remnant of their doomsday scenario. They still believe it’s a good idea whose time is coming. Why would they continue to defend a position shown to be so colossally wrong? Somehow, they weren’t paying attention to the green revolution in agriculture.

Now, in the early-21st century, C&EN resurrects Malthus again in the article “Protein Evolution” (C&EN, Feb. 9, page 8). The story concludes that “animal proteins are not sustainable” because it takes 10 lb of plant protein to make 1 lb of animal protein. How does the conclusion follow from that statement? It’s not even true, depending on the protein. One pound of plant protein generates about 1 lb of tilapia protein. It’s unfortunate we have worked ourselves into such a state of Chicken Little-like squeamishness about genetically engineered food. Otherwise, we might see that we are heading into another major food revolution.

Is it just me, or does it seem to have become fashionable to conclude that absolutely everything the human race has ever done is completely wrong?

Dave McCall



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