1.74 | Fall 2020 | Graduate

Land, Water, Food, and Climate

SECTION 1 | Framing the Discussion

Class 1: The Food Security Debate

This class introduces two opposing perspectives on food security while also considering the broader question of how society can best address critical human needs. Ehrlich and Ehrlich (2013) present a generalization of the Malthus (2008) argument that unrestrained demand will always exceed the capacity of finite natural resources to meet human needs. Lomberg (2001) relies on recent dramatic increases in global food production to argue that technology has, in fact, been able to keep pace with growing demand. These readings are ideological in nature but they provide a useful introduction to issues that are frequently encountered in the course. The accompanying videos provide more detail on some of the arguments invoked by both sides of the debate.

The reading by Godfray et al. (2010) provides a more balanced perspective that acknowledges the seriousness of the food security situation and advocates a “sustainable intensification” strategy for meeting anticipated increases in demand. The suggestions made in the paper are based largely on existing technology, except for some of the mid to long-term genetic engineering proposals, which are quite speculative. Overall, this paper describes what might be considered a middle-of-the-road or “establishment” position in the food security debate.

We conclude with a paper by the Nobel economist Amartya Sen (1982) who comments on differences between  “nature focused” (or technological) and “social focused” (or political) perspectives on food security. This paper discusses Malthus in more detail and makes the case that there is “no such thing as an apolitical food problem.” Although this course is “nature focused,” it is indeed difficult to avoid political, economic, and moral issues when discussing food security. We will likely return to points made in this paper.

Required Readings

The Pessimistic Viewpoint

The Optimistic Viewpoint

  •  Bjørn Lomborg. 2001. “Food and Hunger.” Chapter 5 in The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN: 9780521010689.

A More Balanced Viewpoint

A “Social Focused” Viewpoint

Optional Reading

Food Demand and Production

  • Thomas Malthus, 2008. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Oxford University Press, Geoffrey Gilbert (Editor), ISBN: 9780199540457.

Optional Videos

Another Pessimist

Another Optimist

Discussion Points

  • Can technological advances keep pace with increasing human demand for natural resources? Is a reduction in our demand for food, energy, and goods essential or is it an unnecessary drag on our economy?
  • Why do you think different researchers can draw such differing conclusions from some of the same data sources (e.g. UN data)? Which perspective do you find most convincing?
  • Do you think the Godfray et al (2010) discussion adequately defends the idea that crop production can be increased substantially without causing adverse environmental consequences? Please elaborate on the reasons for your opinion.
  • Do you still find Sen’s comments from 1982 relevant to a discussion of food security? How would you weight or compare the role of science vs. the role of politics in addressing the “food problem”?

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2020
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Instructor Insights