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Predictions of mass starvation might have been averted by Norman Borlaug’s work tinkering with the genetic design of wheat – but worries about overpopulation continue.

The Population Bomb, published by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968, predicted that populations would grow more quickly than food supplies, causing mass starvation. Ehrlich was wrong: food supplies kept pace. And that’s largely due to the years Norman Borlaug spent growing different strains of wheat in Mexico. The 'green revolution' vastly increased yields of wheat, corn and rice. Yet, as Tim Harford describes, worries about overpopulation continue. The world’s population is still growing, and food yields are now increasing more slowly – partly due to environmental problems the green revolution itself made worse. Will new technologies come to the rescue?

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9 minutes

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A combine harvester works in a field cutting 'dwarf wheat' (Credit: Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Sources

Our Daily Bread: The Essential Norman Borlaug, Noel Vietmeyer, Bracing Books, 2011

The Population Bomb, Dr Paul R Ehrlich, Ballantine Books, New York, 1968

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two groundbreaking scientists and their conflicting visions of the future of our planet, Charles C. Mann, Picador, 2018

World Population by Year - Worldometers

Historic Figures: Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) - BBC

An essay on the principle of population, as it affects the future improvement of society with remarks on the speculations of Mr Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers, Thomas Malthus, London, 1798

Paul Ehrlich: 'Collapse of civilisation is a near certainty within decades' - The Guardian

GMO crops have been increasing yield for 20 years, with more progress ahead - Cornell Alliance for Science

Why gene editing is the next food revolution - National Geographic

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