How to combat world hunger and save the Earth

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.

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9 Responses to “How to combat world hunger and save the Earth”

  1. Lee Says:

    My understanding is that there is no global food shortage. The problem is “merely” that there is no will to get the food to where it is needed.

    Furthermore, for national security reasons, hardly a nation wishes to be a net food importer. The countries that have succeeded in producing more food than is needed internally export the excess, thus depressing food prices, and rich-country government subsidies for producers further depress prices. This makes it difficult for local producers in poor countries to compete; since agriculture has historically been a major industry of many of these poor countries, this makes those countries even poorer, and less able to afford the food they need.

    IMHO, the solution is not genetically modified crops. Rather it entails an end to government food subsidies in rich countries. It also requires that excess food not be exported — because the will of most every country is to not import food. for security, aka non-capitalistic, reasons. We need another way to burn away the excess produced food; one possibility is to actually burn it, as in bioethanol production. We need another way to get food to places of famine; sending dollars instead of food, where feasible, can feed the people and allow indigenous agriculture to take root.

    FSR COMMENTS: No, there is no global food shortage. Some people have a shortage of money with which to buy food. You note that food exportation reduces prices — yes it does — to the benefit of those poor people.
    As to burning, I am of the opinion that destruction of utilitarian assets is never economically justifiable policy; it signifies a failure of policy. (As in the case of “cash for clunkers” which required destruction of serviceable vehicles.)
    It is immensely gratifying to see you opposed to government food subsidies in rich countries. Does that mean no Food Stamps? Subsidizing agribusiness is (part of) the problem.
    Genetic Modification may not be a total solution — but surely it is part of the solution to feeding future generations. Why the negativity about it?

  2. Timberati Says:

    Frank, I agree with you. GM/GE crops need to continue to be used. We will reach between 7-11 billion, with the be guess being 9 billion around 2050-75. Growing your own tomatoes and squash is fine but it won’t feed the masses. My latest Timberati.com post is about GM crops and the precautionary principle.

    Free trade and free markets will increase our interdependence and lower the Us versus Them that perfuses so much of our national discourse.

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks. I read your own blog post. Good work. Almost sounds like it came right out of my book; a lot of your points are noted therein!

    Best regards Frank

  4. Timberati Says:

    For the record, I’ve been meaning to buy your book but have not yet read it. I’m also guessing you didn’t use the phrase, “boogedy, boogedy” when referencing the perceived threat of GMOs.

  5. Jason Major TechNyou Says:

    Just a quick clarification for Lee – I have yet to find any scientist/plant breeder using transgenic technology to generate novel crops that thinks GE technology is going to feed the world. The only people I see making that comment nowadays (even Monsanto stick in caveats) are the anti-GM groups that say that this is what Monsanto and scientists are saying – which they are not.

    And yes, there is enough food to feed everyone today and there are all the problems of war, corruption, lack of infrastructure, poverty, wastage…etc that are responsible for starvation and malnutrition. This is well recognised by everybody.

    But all the projections are that by 2050 we will have to feed another 3 billion people, which means finding ways of doubling food production. And we have to do this on the same amount of land and most likely with less water and inputs such as fertiliser.

    Yes we can keep trying to fix all the other problems – these must be part of the mix of solutions. And there are many other modern plant bredding techniques that are also powerful tools and used by the same research groups using GM. Transgenic technology is just one tool in their large tool box. The right tool for the right job and sometimes transgenic technologies can be the most appropiate for solving a particular plant breeding problem – disease resistance; nutritional enrichment; tolerance to abiotic stresses (frost, salinity, drought, etc)..and so on.

    Jason
    Manager
    TechNyou
    University of Melbourne

  6. Anonymous Says:

    FSR COMMENTS: No, there is no global food shortage. Some people have a shortage of money with which to buy food. You note that food exportation reduces prices — yes it does — to the benefit of those poor people.

    It’s only a benefit if those people are not themselves food producers who hope to use the food to acquire other goods, right? Meanwhile we still have the problem that nary a nation wishes to be a food importer, for non-capitalistic reasons.

    As to burning, I am of the opinion that destruction of utilitarian assets is never economically justifiable policy

    I agree completely. I was merely observing that many crops utilitarianly double as both food sources and viable sources of ethanol.

    It is immensely gratifying to see you opposed to government food subsidies in rich countries. Does that mean no Food Stamps? Subsidizing agribusiness is (part of) the problem.

    I agree that subsidizing the domestic suppliers is much of the problem. Subsidizing the domestic consumers does not have the same international consequences.

    Genetic Modification may not be a total solution — but surely it is part of the solution to feeding future generations. Why the negativity about it?

    When it comes to food, drugs, and other bodily interventions, I am personally very conservative. So long as consumers can detect which foods are GM (or which are not) , I see no reason why others cannot take the risks I avoid.

  7. Lee Says:

    Oops, posting error. Anonymous (September 3, 2010 at 6:04 pm) is me.

  8. Aneesha anna Ajit Says:

    Accordind to my part of view,
    i am adamant about that genetically modified crops are an asset for the nation. Biotechnology and Gentic Engineering are regarded as the science of the future generation which arouses a lot of promises for the present and future if used in a apt manner.

  9. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Modified crops can and should be used where appropriate. But modified genes can transfer cross-species and the results of this are almost impossible to predict. Caution is warranted.

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