Just how bad is famine in North Korea?

A Feb. 24 Reuters report revealed
just how bad things are in North Korea. A survey of 472 North Korean refugees
who fled to China revealed that 29 percent of the refugees’ relatives,
acquaintances and neighbors have died in the last two years of famine.

The survey, conducted by the Korean
American Sharing Movement, is not generalizable to the whole of North
Korea and suffers from serious methodological problems, but it is an anecdotal
look into just how severe the famine in North Korea has been for those
living in border towns close to China.

A similar survey last year of North
Korean refugees in China revealed a 24 percent death rate of relatives,
acquaintances and friends of refugees.

No-till farming starting to catch on

A March 3 Associated Press report
reveals that no-till farming practices, which relies on minimal plowing
and crop rotation to preserve the quality of topsoil, is starting to catch
on with American farmers.

According to the Conservation Technology
Information Center, no-till methods were used on almost 110 million acres
in the United States in 1997 — about 37 percent of total farmland.

One of the factors driving the
adoption of no-till practices is the gradual phasing out of farm subsidies
under the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” law. As subsidy payments and
accompanying restrictions on what farmers can plant are eliminated, farmers
are looking for new crops to plant and more cost effective ways to plant
them.

Food relief on its way to Sudan

In a Feb. 26 story the Associated Press reported
that the United Nations had resumed air drops of food to hungry refugees
in southwestern Sudan. The government of President Hassan el Bashir had
forbidden aid relief flights three weeks ago claiming such flights were
unsafe due to heavy fighting between government and rebel forces in the
area.

The real problem, of course, is that El Bashir’s
government is slowly but surely losing the war in the South. Today rebels
fighting the government control more land than they have at any other
time in the 14-year-old civil war. The government’s policies against
Christians and animists in the South, to the point of allowing Christians
and animists to be sold into slavery.

The U.N. delivered over 46 tons of grain following
the lifting of the ban, and the World Food Program plans to deliver another
138 tons of corn and sorghum by the end of the week. It’s only a
start, however. Almost 4 million people may need assistance at a cost
of well over $100 million.

Need Headline

A Feb. 23 Associated Press story suggests that
the world can indeed dramatically increase crop yields, but that it can
do so in environmentally ways (the sound you here is Lester Brown and
Paul Ehrlich screaming “Impossible!”)

The AP story profiles ecologist Gordon Conway
who was recently appointed to take over as president of the Rockefeller
Foundation beginning in April. Conway has just published a book, “The
Doubly Green Revolution,” that outlines his views on how crop yields
can be expanded without undue harm to the environment.

The solution, of course, is relying on ever
more sophisticated technology. Conway, who was one of the original proponents
of integrated pest management, argues various technologies can be combined
to increase crop yields in even the poorest areas.

“It’s about producing the same amount
of food as we did in the last Green Revolution, doing it not only in the
best lands but in the marginal lands, doing it so the poor gain access,
and doing it so that it’s environmentally sustainable,” Conway
told the AP.

Conway notes that using genetic engineering
and biotechnology, humans will be able to design plants to grow in areas
with low rainfall or high salt content in the soil. This could lead, Conway
claims, to a revolution in soil and water conservation as plant species
become tailored to their particular environment rather than vice versa.

The Ongoing Oil Glut

Lately the nation’s media seem overflowing
with news on the worldwide glut of oil. The best article was Business
Week’s
cover story on oil economics, “The New Economics
of Oil” in its November 3, 1997 issue.

The Business Week story makes a strong case
that oil prices will continue to remain stable or even decline over the
next decade or so. Much of the history of oil production over the last
couple decades completely defies the notion that oil will become more
scarce, and thus more expensive over time.

Perhaps the best indicator of this that really
jumps out at the reader is the current cost of finding an additional barrel
of oil. Using increasing scarcity as a model, doomsayers of all stripes
have concluded the cost of finding each additional barrel would gradually
increase. Instead the cost has declined 60 percent in real terms over
the past decade. As a result there is a huge glut of oil.

Advances in exploration technology, for example,
have cut Exxon’s exploration costs by 85% in 10 years. Many areas
such as in the deep ocean once considered inaccessible are now being drilled
for oil.

Current proven oil reserve are 60 percent higher
than in 1985, and Smith Rea Energy Associates Ltd., a London-based researcher,
claims an additional 350 billion barrels of oil is now recoverable due
to technological advances that isn’t included in the proven oil reserve
estimates.

Over at Microsoft’s Slate,
James Surowiecki looks at the effects technological changes have had on
the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries. To put it bluntly, OPEC has
all but fallen apart. Where once OPEC cause worldwide economic shifts,
today it has met with little success in restricting its output. At a recent
OPEC meeting, for example, the cartel raised daily production quotas to
27.5 million barrels, but Surowiecki claims most estimates suggest OPEC
nations are already pumping 28 million barrels a day.

In fact, shades of Julian Simon, Surowiecki
quotes the chief economist of Venezuela’s state oil company saying,
“our reserves are — for all intents and purposes — infinite.”

Surowiecki identifies a factor in oil prices
which Business Week doesn’t mention — the importance of the futures
market in oil. The oil futures market is relatively new — it didn’t
exist prior to the 1980s. With the futures market it is easier to stabilize
prices over the long term by locking in future prices today and encouraging
price competition.

Finally veteran Associated
Press
reporter Walter Mears notes that the low cost of oil has meant
the death of an idea that was so prominent in the 1970s — energy independence.
Today the United States imports 50 percent of its oil; in the 1970s that
level was considered perilously high. The 55 mph speed limit, designed
to conserve oil after the Arab oil embargo, was finally repealed in 1995.

This Time He Means It

Okay, it’s a new year which means another doomsaying
tract from Lester Brown and the paranoid folks at WorldWatch.
I’ll give you three guesses what Brown’s big prediction this time is.
Give up?

That’s right, surprise surprise, Brown predicts
the world is on the verge of suffering massive famine and global collapse
— even the international monetary system could be threatened. According
to Brown, “As the global economy has expanded, it’s begun to outrun
the basic support systems. If it continues, we will find ourselves in
serious difficulty.”

Given Brown’s track record the only thing in
serious difficulty is that Brown may run out of gullible people to keep
believing his annual announcement of the apocalypse.