Five months after a military coup and subsequent looting of food reserves, up to 200,000 people face starvation in the African nation of Sierra Leone according to the United Nations World Food Program.
In a November 7 report by Agence France-Presse, Paul Ares, West Africa director for the program, said, “The situation gets worse each month. Our stocks are diminishing, and we have to decide who eats this month and who will go hungry.”
The report noted that security concerns have prevented distribution of food since the coup, as a raging civil war and regional economic embargoes have taken their toll.
A recent Scientific American article, “Access to Safe Drinking Water,” reveals just how complicated the answer to that question is. In historical terms, water supplies today are extraordinarily safe in much of the developed world. As the opening paragraphs put it,
In 1848 and 1849 up to a million people in Russia and 150,000 in France died of cholera, the classic disease of contaminated water. Typhoid fever, another disease transmitted through water, was most likely responsible for the deaths of 6,500 out of 7,500 colonists in Jamestown, Va., early in the 17th century; during the Spanish-American War, it disabled one fifth of the American army.
Today waterborne disease is no longer a major problem in developed countries, thanks to water-purification methods such as filtration and chlorination and to the widespread availability of sanitary facilities. But in developing countries, waterborne and sanitation-related diseases kill well over three million annually and disable hundreds of millions more, most of them younger than five years of age.
It is ironic that while environmentalists in the West obsess over the effects of trace elements of chemicals in the water supply that hundreds of millions of people face conventional risks which have been wiped out in the West.
In last weeks Population News I reported that the FAOs State of Food and Agriculture 1997 report outlined how, contrary to some environmentalist claims, world fish catches continue to improve. Science writer Michael Fumento wrote a column a few weeks ago showing how groups such as Population Action make the fisheries situation appear dire by only reporting on part of the story.
Fumento quotes Population Actions Robert Engelman as saying, “Were up against the wall. Since the end of the 80s, weve been catching the same amount of wild fish around the world, [but] there are about 90 million more people every year.”
As Fumento notes, the problem is in Engelmans qualifying his statement with the world “wild.” Yes wild fish catches have stabilized, largely because aquaculture has taken off dramatically from a mere 6,933 thousand tons in 1984 to 15,800 tons by 1993. If you combine both wild and farmed fish, total fish catches grew 24% from 1984-1993 while world population grew only 16%.
Fumento cites a United Nations report that continuing to feed the world the same per capita level of fish would require “an overall average increase of less than one million tons a year,” a level at which growth in aquaculture is currently far exceeding, growing by almost two million tons annually in recent years.
What Population Action is doing is akin to counting available food only by measuring wheat and rice that occur naturally in the wild while ignoring the human innovation we call agriculture. When it comes to reporting on fish, Population Action is all wet.
In its Spring 1997 research update, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis detailed its work in the Katowice region of southwest Poland which, thanks to communist economic planning, is believed to be the place in Europe most heavily contaminated with heavy metal pollution. With enormous airborne concentrations of cadmium lead and sulfur dioxide, the area is so polluted that some experts believe it is unsafe to even eat food grown in the soil.
As the IIASA sums up the problems of the “Black Triangle” which includes parts of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic in a zone of high pollution, “The Black Triangle and its 32 million inhabitants missed the shift to a post-industrial society experienced during the 1970s by comparable areas in the West. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the area lacked both an enlightened environmental policy and public awareness of postindustrial Western development. With the resultant increase in openness came revelation of the dramatic environmental degradation in the Black Triangle and its impact on health.”
Thanks to communist mismanagement, the IIASA believes it will take several decades for the Black Triangle to catch up to environmental quality levels which the rest of Europe enjoys.
The U.S. Agency for International Development announced in late October that it was stepping up efforts to combat malaria using insecticide-treated mosquito netting and treatment clinics.
An October 30, 1997 Reuters report said USAID administrator Brian Atwood would announce the anti-malaria initiative at a conference on the malaria problem in Washington, DC. The report cited Dennis Carroll, the conference director, as claiming that field trials of insecticide-treated netting found it reduce the mortality rate of infants and children by up to 30 percent.
According to Reuters, malaria currently kills more than 2 million people worldwide, most of them children under the age of five.
A recent study on the viability of bioengineered crops concludes transgenic crops are safe and can improve yields dramatically. The study, commissioned by Ismail Serageldin, World Bank vice-president for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, concludes “transgenic crops are not in principle more injurious to the environment than traditionally bred crops.”
This is a healthy antidote to the nonsense spread about biotech by naysayers such as Jeremy Rifkin or microbiologist John Fagan who in a Scripps-Howard news report complained “when … altered DNA molecules are introduced into a living organism in the filed, the full range of their effects cannot be predicted or known before commercialization.” Of course while technically true — the full effects of anything going from the laboratory to the real world cannot be precisely predicted — adhering to this silly standard would mean banishing just about any and all future human technological advances.
Although their ultimate effects are likely overstated given the current state of the art, bioengineered crops could play a significant role in increasing crop yields which will allow the world to feed more people and do it using less land.