WorldWatch Institute: food prices are rising and the sky is falling

I’m a big sports fan, and one of the things I hate the most is to watch one of my favorite teams lose. Even worse is when a team I follow goes on a losing streak for a few games. But never in my deepest despair do I imagine that since my team has lost the last 5 or 6 games that it will never win a game ever again; there are going to be ups and downs with even the best team.

The geniuses at the WorldWatch Institute, on the other hand, disagree. To them a periodic downturn is evidence of impending disaster. I’m referring to a press release WorldWatch released touting its new policy paper, The Agricultural Link: How Environmental Deterioration Could Disrupt Economic Progress, which direly warns, “rising grain prices may be the first global economic indicator to tell us that we are on an economic and demographic path that is environmentally unsustainable.”

Here’s the deal. For the past 50 years or so grain prices have been going down, down, down. Grain is now incredibly cheap by historical standards. But a few years ago grain prices started rising. WorldWatch claims they’ve risen 39 percent over the last three years.

Why? Because the rate of growth of grain production slowed. If you look at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s figures for 1995/6 through 1997/8 it’s obvious that increases in production of wheat, coarse grains and milled rice have come to a halt. Should we be concerned?

Not really. WorldWatch makes the claim that the decrease in agricultural production is due to environmental deterioration, but in fact it has much more mundane sources. First, a major contributor to increase in prices has been the major decline in output from the former Soviet republics which are still embroiled in political instability and uncertainty. In the United States and Europe, environmental and economic policies in general have both been directed at reducing overall grain production. Finally, the agricultural price system seems to have worked exactly as it should.

In 1995/96 grain prices soared and cereal stocks were depleted. The price increase, however, encouraged farmers to increase grain production and the FAO reports that based on its forecast for 1997/98, “cereal production will meet expected 1997/98 consumption requirements and should allow for a further modest replenishment of cereal stocks for the second consecutive year.” According to the FAO, global end-of-season stocks should be 17 to 18 percent of total used, and by 1997/98 the ratio will be back up to around 16 percent. Still not ideal, but headed in the right direction, contra WorldWatch.

Beyond misinterpreting the data, WorldWatch jumps through a lot of hoops to arrive at its apocalyptic position.

In its press release, for example, it claims water shortages are an impending problem and “the inevitable cutbacks in water pumping and irrigation that follow aquifer depletion are now starting … as countries press against the limits o their water supplies, cities typically satisfy their growing needs by taking water from agriculture.” Why is this a problem? Even WorldWatch has produced studies demonstrating that world agricultural usage of water is excessive. If anything, WorldWatch shouldn’t be afraid that people will want to stop subsidizing irrigation projects in Texas, but instead be thankful the world is on the verge of far more efficient water use patterns. In fact in its conclusions one of its action items is “raising the efficiency of water use.”

WorldWatch’s conclusions show where the organization’s heart really is. Claiming stabilizing the population is the only solution, it calls for actions on “the scale and urgency of … World War II.” Forget that the world is already well on its way toward population stability and then decline without Lester Brown’s intervention. Forget that there’s not a lot that can be done in the worst areas, such as Africa, unless and until those areas free themselves from authoritarian rule. No, the only way to save the world from collapse is to let Brown and his chums remake the world in their own image.

Sorry, Lester, but the only thing that seems unsustainable here is your reasoning.

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