Food: we can make it better, more abundant and cheaper?

A recently published book claims much of the environmentalist rhetoric about running out of food is fundamentally flawed. The World Food Outlook is the product of two economists with the World Bank, Donald O. Mitchell and Merlinda D. Ingco, and Ronald C. Duncan of the National Centre for Development Studies at the Australian National University.

The book jackets summarizes the main points of the book this way:

The fact is that the world food situation has improved dramatically for most of the world’s consumers. Output of cereals, the world’s main food source, has increased 2.7 per cent per annum since 1950, while population has grown by about 1.9 per cent per annum. Cereal yields have increased at 2.25 per cent per annum. Not all people in the world today have adequate diets and there is no doubting the desperate circumstances of some peoples, but diets for most of the world’s consumers have improved dramatically and per capita calorie consumption in developing countries has increased by some 27 per cent since the 1960s. It should continue to improve, and food will be cheaper than it is today.

The trio also estimate that to feed future population, agricultural growth needs to achieve at least 1.4 percent annual growth (current growth is about 1.7 percent), and a growth rate of 2 percent annually would allow up to 11 percent of the world’s crop land to be returned to other uses while still maintaining adequate food security.

More On Malaria

The Atlantic Monthly ran an enormous article in its August 1997 issue on the continued prevalence of Malaria worldwide. As author Ellen Ruppel Shell notes, almost 40 percent of the world’s population live in an area where malaria is endemic.

Shell chronicles how the World Health Organization set out to eradicate malaria in the 1950s only to see incidence rise to even higher levels by the 1960s when the eradication program was abandoned and replaced with a strategy designed to merely control the spread of malaria.

Today malaria kills close to 3 million people each year. Shell is to be credited for giving space to experts on malaria who note the often irrational fear over DDT (as opposed to rational concern about the excessive spraying of the pesticide) has removed an important method of reducing malaria deaths, although pesticide use remains a short term solution. For the long term Shell cites several nations which managed to dramatically reduce malaria deaths through extremely creative management of species which kill mosquitos.

Someday maybe malaria will be taken as seriously as a public health threat as AIDS, which kills less than half that claimed by malaria.

No More Higher Yields?

Occasionally I receive email telling me my position on agriculture is completely bonkers. There’s simply no way, the naysayers write, to increase crop yields in the Third World. Those people must know something the Food and Agricultural Organization doesn’t.

The FAO is currently sponsoring several food security projects throughout the world, and recently wrote up a short release about its project in Eritrea.

From 1961 to 1991 Eritrea hosted a civil war which, as the FAO puts it, “almost destroyed the country.” Working with about 140 farmers, an FAO project managed to show farmers how to use hybrid seeds, moderate amounts of fertilizer and good crop management skills to double their yields.

Eritrea is still a long way from food self-sufficiency, producing only about 40 percent of the food it actually consumes, but the solution is not to throw up our hands and say “Impossible!” but instead to do as the FAO is doing and show people in places like Eritrea how they can bring their crop yields closer to the rest of the world’s.

Will China emerge from yoke of Communism?

China’s new ruler, Jiang Zemin, may finally be placing that nation on the road of no return toward political liberalization and freedom. A Sept. 22 story in Time magazine detailed Zemin’s plans to radically alter the political and economic landscape of the world’s largest Communist nation.

Over the next few years, China will sell off all but a thousand or so of 125,000 state-owned industries. Zemin has recently also allowed a greater degree of press freedom than under his predecessor, Deng Xiaoping.

China, beset first by Mao Zedong’s program of accelerating Chinese population growth and then the draconian one child policy, may find it hard to pull back from freedom once economic power is decentralized. Although the Chinese have shown themselves more masterful at alternating reforms with repression than the leaders of the Soviet Union were, such a fundamental change may spell the death of one of the world’s most tyrannical states.

With increasing political and economic freedom, China will be far better equipped to deal with its environmental and population issues.

Are environmentalists beginning to take a nasty anti-immigrant turn?

Traditionally anti-immigrant fever in the United States has been fueled by demagogues on the right. Recently, however, concerned that the United States is overpopulated (that’s not a misprint), groups like Population-Environment Balance and the Population Institute have been pressuring even mainline environmental groups to take anti-immigration stances.

According to an Oct. 2, 1997 Associated Press story, the Sierra Club’s 500,000 members will soon vote on whether or not to end their neutral policy on immigration and instead endorse a reduction in immigration to the United States.

The AP story quotes Sierra Club member Alan Kuper, who fought to have the issue scheduled for a vote in March 1998 as saying overpopulation “happens to underlie all environmental issues” including traffic jams, air pollution, water shortages and species loss.

To their credit, not everyone in the Sierra Club is falling for this nonsense. Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope said, “this is a nasty, polarized debate in our society, one of the reasons our directors didn’t want to get involved in the issue.”

The position of people like Kuper is extraordinarily wrongheaded as immigration from heavily populated countries, such as Bangladesh, to less populated nations such as the United States is a major way to ease population difficulties in the Third World. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know the world environment might be a bit less taxed if people living in Bangladesh, with its population density of close to 900 people per square mile, immigrated to the United States, with its population density of roughly 72 per square mile.

But then little that comes out of the overpopulation camp ever makes much sense.

The veggie fundamentalists are going to hate this

You’ve probably heard the common refrain that all we’d have to do to feed everyone on the planet is to abandon a meat based diet in favor of a wholly or partially vegetarian diet, which uses far less grain than feeding cows. But what if, instead, we could make cows hyper-efficient meat producers. Researchers in New Zealand might have found a way to do just that.

On August 26, Reuters reported that a husband and wife team, Mridula Sharma and Ravi Kambadur, discovered a gene responsible for a mutation in cattle which doubles muscle growth in the cattle.

The gene, myostatin, normally acts to inhibit muscle growth. Sharma and Kambadur discovered a mutation which increases muscle mass up to 40 percent in certain breeds and could lead to even strong increases. The upshot is the cattle with the mutation produced far more meat (and more tender meat at that) than cattle without the mutation.

The two have managed to clone the gene and recently published their discovery of a similar find in mice in Nature.

Of course it will probably never get to market with the hysteria over genetic engineering so common with environmentalists these days, but if you want to sink your teeth into a nice juicy, environmentally-friendly steak, this is the way to go.