David Attenborough, an unreconstructed follower of Rev. Thomas Malthus

David Attenborough’s neo Malthusianism has erupted into the newspapers again. To a respectful Daily Telegraph interviewer he says ‘What are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little land. That’s what it’s about. And we are blinding ourselves. We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy’.

a)    Although drought has caused some food shortages in recent years, the severe famine of 1983-85 is now almost thirty years ago. David Attenborough is wrong to see Ethiopia as a land continuously riven by famine. He is stuck with the increasingly incorrect Western cliché of the starving African.

b)    Economic progress in Ethiopia in the last decades has been highly impressive. GDP per capita has risen 50% since the year 2000.

c)    Grains are the principal food source in Ethiopia. Grain production has doubled since 2000.

d)    Overall food production in Ethiopia has also almost doubled since 2000.

e)      Grain yields per hectare are up over 60% since 2000.

f)       The UK’s population density is three times that of Ethiopia. If that country has ‘too many people for too little land’ then the UK is triply at fault.

g)      The calorie deficits of the under-nourished in Ethiopia have fallen every year in recent years. The percentage of under-nourished – still far, far too high – has fallen by over a quarter to about 40% since 2000 and the absolute number of people with too little food had decreased, even as the population has risen.

h)      The country continues to import food, as does the UK. The ratio of Ethiopian food imports to Ethiopian food consumption is far lower than the UK at around 15%. Ethiopia is also a significant exporter of some foodstuffs and what the FAO calls stimulants (ie coffee).

The Ethiopian famine of 1983-5 was a truly terrible event, exacerbated by the civil war taking place at the time.  Since then the country has made rapid strides towards reducing the scourge of undernourishment, and over-reliance on food aid, even as population increases. Good government and sensible policies are beginning to make Ethiopia less hungry. The population growth rate is falling, and will fall faster as economic development progresses (as it has everywhere else in the world).

Sir David’s comments reminded me, as they will have reminded others, of the writings of Sir Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant in charge of Ireland during the Famine of the mid 19th century. Sir Charles saw the Famine as retribution on Ireland for the moral failings - such as sloth and a tendency to have too many children - of its people. Like the Malthusians, he saw famine as the only way of keeping the population in check. A century and a half later, Sir David seems to think the same about Ethiopia. The most shocking thing is that most people appear to agree with him