In 1967, Paul Ehrlich declared that the battle to feed humanity was lost, and hundreds of millions would soon starve. Earlier, Thomas Malthus foresaw the impossibility of feeding a growing population – when the world count stood below a billion.
Today it’s 6.8 billion and the percentage hungry is lower than ever. Yet still we hear shrill warnings of food apocalypse.
Oddly, the people voicing them tend to oppose the very things that actually reduce hunger. Maybe some of them merely want the satisfaction of being proven right. Or view humanity as a pack of sinners deserving divine comeuppance for “raping the planet.”
And so they oppose Genetically Modified crops. There is no scientifically responsible case against GM, this is mindless technophobia. Wider use of GM would increase food production and reduce hunger today. Those who fight GM condemn millions to starvation.
Similarly, they decry other modern agricultural advances that improve productivity, vaunting instead the virtue of “organic” farming, eschewing certain kinds of fertilizers and pesticides. Fine and dandy – if you’re willing to kiss off rain forests. Because a world of organic-only farming would require tripling the acreage under cultivation.
Then there’s “local food.” Actually, transport costs (and their environmental effects) just aren’t big factors, they’re dwarfed by the energy inputs in growing food. This makes crucial the worldwide trade in food, promoting the efficiency of growing things where they are grown best. Tomatoes imported from sunny Spain may well have a lower carbon footprint than hothouse tomatoes grown next door. And if locavores triumph, then a lot of African farmers, unable to export their produce to rich markets, will starve.
The 8/28 Economist has a good article on how Brazil, once facing a food crisis, adopted policies completely opposite to those preached by the agro-pessimists – with stellar results. Brazil embraced GM food and other scientific advances. It refused to copy the US and European penchant for big state subsidies to prop up farmers, and also opened up to trade, letting small farms fold. Its farms now are huge – and hugely efficient. Brazil turned itself from a food importer to one of the world’s leading producers, its output rising 365% in a decade.
Did this farming miracle pillage the Amazon forest? No; nearly all occurred elsewhere (on lands once deemed unfarmable). Indeed, the point is that by making its farms maximally productive, Brazil has avoided being pressed to exploit the rain forest. Thus efficient scientifically advanced agriculture helps save the environment (from ruination by anti-scientific “greens”).
And saves people from starvation.