Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Malthus Returns?

Carlisle Ford Runge and Carlisle Piehl Runge have written an interesting article in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2010, entitled Against the Grain: Why Failing to Complete the Green revolution Could Bring the Next Famine. They begin by asking the question: was Malthus right? The answer: probably not. Their bottom line is that if the world’s population tops off at about nine billion people as anticipated, the supply of food should be sufficient to meet the demand. The problem, as they see it, is that "meeting the demand" will not happen automatically. Hunger is a large problem now and it will only continue to get worse unless action is taken.
"In June 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization, a UN agency, projected that hunger now affects one billion people—about one-sixth of the world’s population—due to ‘stubbornly high food prices’ and the global economic slowdown, which has depressed the income of the world’s poorest people."The authors point out that the world’s net surplus has been diminishing, making it ever harder to get food to the poorest and most in need. They quote the Earth Policy Institute as claiming that world grain production was below the rate of consumption in six of the last nine years. The authors attribute the growing supply issues to three factors.
"First, the rate of increases in crop yields appears to be slowing. Second, and this is related, agricultural research expenditures have diminished since the 1980s, especially in Africa. Third, global food supplies have begun to fall relative to demand and prices have begun to rise—problems that are being exacerbated by the increasing use, in rich countries, of grain not only as food and feed but also as biofuel."The slowdown in the growth of crop yields is not too surprising. There must be a law of diminishing returns that kicks in somewhere, but the actual causes are more subtle and in some cases insidious. The modern agricultural methods that have performed so well in terms of yield, depend on methods that are not sustainable.
"Over-irrigation and the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals polluted and depleted water supplies and sapped the soil’s fertility....Thus, the impressive climb in average agricultural yields over the last half of the twentieth century is but a surface reality. The deeper reality is that in the twenty-first century, as water and soil quality has fallen, unsustainable techniques have pushed the biophysical systems to their limits."The slowing in yield growth is also caused by cutbacks in agricultural research. These cutbacks have been particularly severe in funds aimed at the poorer countries, the ones who need help the most. As national and international research budgets have declined, a greater portion of the research is carried on by private companies. The corporations are in the business of making money so it is not to surprising that the beneficiaries of their research are generally the big commercial farming organizations. It has always been true that advanced agricultural techniques have been costly and the ones best able to take advantage of them are the already wealthy.

The authors lament the fact that while farm productivity in some areas exploded, many poor areas were not able to take advantage of the new techniques and fell further behind. It is precisely these countries, with their growing populations, that are suffering the most from meager local supplies and increasing prices. The problem is not always just one of seeds and fertilizers and techniques. The authors tell one tale of a successful project to increase yields in Ethiopia that produced more product than the country could absorb and ended up creating a catastrophic decline in produce prices. The problem was that the focus was on increasing yield. No one worried that there were was not sufficient infrastructure in the country to get the product to markets in time to be of any value.

One will find no sympathy here for the biofuel production efforts that have become so popular. Produce that goes to provide fuel for automobiles is not available to provide fuel for those one billion hungry humans. This diversion exacerbates the scarcity by driving up the price of the remaining product.

While a Malthusian catastrophe seems neither imminent nor inevitable, there are a billion people hungry right now. Demographics and economics seem destined to push that number higher. Output is struggling to keep up with demand and prices have risen dramatically. Something needs to be done before more people fall into the "hungry" category. Malnourishment can have long-term consequences that are not reversible. The authors believe the key to addressing this growing food problem is to make sure that the agricultural revolution is experienced by all countries, not just the wealthy.
"Getting both the science and the economics right continues to matter today. Substantial investment in research to increase crop yields are needed, especially in Africa, as is extending this research to scientists in all developing countries. Agricultural development aid, for its part, needs to focus on stabilizing markets and developing the infrastructure to distribute any increased production. Such measures made US agriculture the world’s most productive in history. They can, and must, be repeated elsewhere now."

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