One of the most surprising news items of 2006, at least to me, was the announcement that there are now more overweight people in the world than hungry ones.
Say what? It was not that long ago that all the experts were predicting that our skyrocketing human population would soon outstrip its food supply, leading directly to mass famine. By now millions were supposed to be perishing from hunger every year. It was the old doom-and-gloom Malthusian mathematics at work: population shoots up geometrically while food production lags. It makes eminent sense. I grew up with Malthus's ideas brought up-to-date in apocalyptic books like The Population Bomb.
Who defused the bomb? Instead of mass starvation, we seem to be awash in food. And it's not just the United States. Obesity is on the increase in Mexico. Fat-related diabetes is becoming epidemic in India. My parents used to tell me when I didn't eat my dinner to think about the hungry children in China. Today one in five people in China is overweight, 60 million are obese, and the rate of overweight children has increased 28-fold since 1985. Everywhere you look, from Buffalo to Beijing, it's ballooning bellies.
Instead of going hungry, humans around the world on a per capita basis are eating more calories than ever before. Perhaps it's time for Walt Disney to update his theme ride. It's not a small world, after all. It's a big, fat world. And it's getting fatter.
If you're looking for reasons behind today's obesity epidemic, don't stop with the usual suspects, all of which are being trotted out by the press: fast food, trans fat, high sugar, low exercise, computer games, strange bacteria in your gut, weird molecules in your blood. I personally blame some hardwired human instinct for sitting around eating salty, greasy, sugary snacks in preference to hard physical labor. All of these factors are certainly related to the "insidious, creeping pandemic of obesity... now engulfing the entire world," as one gung-ho expert recently put it. But they are only bits of the puzzle.
The underlying answer is this: There's a lot of cheap food around. Yes, walk into your local mega-grocery-emporium or just about any food-selling area anywhere in the world and stare the problem in the face. There's inexpensive, high-calorie food piled all over the place. Somehow we outsmarted Malthus. Food production has not only kept up with population growth but has managed somehow to outstrip it. There are ups and downs from year to year because of the weather, and there are pockets of starvation around the world (due not to a global lack of food, but to a lack of ways to transport it where it's needed). In general, silos are bursting. Tons of food gets plowed under the ground because there's so much of it farmers can't get the prices they want. Tons of cheap food (corn, for instance) is used to create more expensive food (like steak). Lots of food means lots of grease, and meat, and sugar, and calories. Lots of food means lots of overweight people.
If you like the idea of avoiding mass starvation – and I certainly do – you owe thanks to two groups of scientists: one that gave us the Green Revolution back around the 1980s via strains of very hardy, high-yielding grains, and another that figured out how to make bread out of air. You heard me right. If you're looking for someone to blame for today's era of plenty, look to a couple of German scientists who lived a century ago. They understood that the problem was not a lack of food per se, but a lack of fertilizer – then they figured out how to make endless amounts of fertilizer.
The number-one component of any fertilizer is nitrogen, and the first of the two German researchers, Fritz Haber, discovered in 1909 how to work the dangerous, complex chemistry needed to pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere ? where it is abundant but useless for fertilizer ? and turn it into a substance that can grow plants. Carl Bosch, a young genius working for a chemical company, quickly ramped up Haber's process to industrial levels. They both won Nobel Prizes. Today, jaw-droppingly huge Haber-Bosch plants, much refined and improved, are humming around the world, pumping out the hundreds of thousands of tons of fertilizers that enrich the fields that grow the crops that become the sugars and oils and cattle that are cooked into the chips and burgers and snack cakes that make us fat.
If you don't think their work is important, consider that half the nitrogen in your body is synthetic, a product of a Haber/Bosch factory. Or that without the added food made possible by their discovery, the earth could only support about 4 billion people ? at least 2 billion less than are alive today.
And yes, before you email me, I understand the concomitant problems: stress on ecosystems, pollution (including nitrogen pollution), etc. etc. But I am an optimist, so instead of moaning I will leave you with some more good news. Even with a world population that continues to add tens of millions of new mouths every year, given Haber/Bosch fertilizer and a surprising trend toward a worldwide decline in birth rates (if you live about 50 years longer, according to the best estimates, you'll see humanity reach zero population growth), it is within humanity's grasp to avoid mass starvation forever.
Happy New Year, everybody.
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Medical and science writer Thomas Hager is author of The Demon under the Microscope. His next book is a history of the Haber-Bosch discovery.