AGGARWAL: Malthus and me

I do not see what the big deal about chicken tenders is. When I first tried them last week, they tasted mostly like nothing — nothing edible, that is. So after being goaded on by a bunch of wide-eyed upperclassmen to take a plateful, I went to dump it in the trash. While I was not immediately struck by pangs of guilt or visions of hungry, starving children, I did see something close enough. Heaps of salads, piles of sandwiches and stacks of pancakes were lying there rotting, all sacrificed at the altar of all-you-can-eat college dining.

This is a problem that schools across the country have been trying to deal with through various methods, not least by experimenting with trayless dining and composting. The Yale Office of Sustainability’s goal of reducing solid waste from dining halls to 30 percent below 2009 levels by the end of this academic year is indeed commendable. However, the amount they can salvage is constricted by the sheer magnitude of waste coming out of the dining halls. What we don’t understand, though, is how intimately problems of food wastage in the Yale bubble are linked to pressing global issues the world over.

Two centuries ago, Thomas Robert Malthus postulated something pretty incredible. Human beings, he said, must copulate and multiply. Land, on the other hand, is finite and all we have to live on. Therefore mankind must either disappear into the darkness of extinction or die faster by means of epidemics and wars.

It may seem ridiculous today to think that socioeconomic and technological progress will plateau simply because of burgeoning numbers. After all, in today’s interconnected world, nations have a chance to grow out of the restrictions placed on them by geography and topography. Economic growth has outpaced population growth, and countries like Brazil and Australia produce phenomenally more food than they did when Malthus was around. Even the rate of population growth has fallen globally, from 2 percent in the 1960s to 1.2 percent four decades later.

Try as we might, however, we cannot wish away the fact that, in the world we live in today, 1 billion overweight people coexist with 850 million people who have barely enough to survive. Neither can we forget the mobs rioting in the streets of Cairo a few years ago for bread, nor the current rise in prices of food worldwide, even in the heart of first-world suburbia. The rising affluence of the erstwhile third world countries poses a problem, too — their growing consumption of high-end and processed food raises doubts about whether the world will be able to support the projected global population of 9.5 billion by 2050.

While new agricultural technologies and research on genetically modified crops is of course a major part of the solution, we must not forget the role individuals and groups can play as catalysts. The problem of food waste is as grave and noteworthy as that of less production. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 40 percent of food in America goes uneaten. This food waste costs $165 billion a year and sucks up 25 percent of the country’s freshwater. And, to add to this barrage of statistics, here’s one more: One in six Americans still goes hungry.

This is the sad truth that must be addressed by us all. After all, isn’t the very first Millennium Development Goal to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger? The discourse on food security is central to the discourse on the nature of human dignity today.

We at Yale care immensely about the world around us. It shows in the University’s engagement with New Haven, the social service projects undertaken by students the world over and the ideation here that drives change everywhere. The food we waste is never fully recovered or as useful as the food that remains untouched in the dining hall service stations. It would be in keeping with Yale’s innate character and its spirit as a global university helping to tackle global issues if we could take only as much food as we need and waste no more. It is only then that we can consign Malthus’s ideas to the dustbin of history where they belong.

Dhruv Aggarwal is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at dhruv.aggarwal@yale.edu .

Comments

  • RexMottram08

    Economic fallacy spotted: land, just like oil or any other ‘natural resource’ is not finite in any meaningful way.

    As any resource become scarce, market prices increase to induce greater exploration, production, and substitution. See: high rise buildings, deep sea drilling, hybrid cars.

    This frosh should rewrite his column after Econ 101.

    • River_Tam

      > land, just like oil or any other ‘natural resource’ is not finite in any meaningful way.

      Could you clarify what you mean by this?