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.

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.

Famine In 1997

On August 14, the United Nations released a list of nations in Africa which could face famine conditions over the next few months.

Sierra Leone and Tanzania are currently the worst off. In Sierra Leone, a military coup in May led many farmers to abandon their crops and as a result the country is currently in the midst of a food crises which could turn into a famine.

Burundi and Rwanda, still reeling from ethnic conflicts and massage refugee problems, have yet to recover to their pre-crisis position. In Rwanda, for example, food production is still almost 20 percent below what it was in 1990. As in Sierra Leone, military attacks have forced many farmers to flee.

Meanwhile up to 40 percent of the population in Burundi have abandoned their farms and fields.

Eastern Africa has been hit by a drought, sending food prices soaring in Kenya and Uganda. Tanzania has been especially hit hard with almost total crop failure in many significant agricultural areas.

The FAO reports that Angola, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Somalia and Sudan are also in need of food aid.

If only the warlords in Africa would stop fighting long enough to let their people grow the food the continent needs to survive.

Common Population Myths

In my opinion one of the best independent sources for information about information is Joel Cohen, head of the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University and author of How Many People Can the Earth Support?

Surfing the web the other day I came across a summary of an article Cohen wrote for Discover magazine, “Dispelling Common Population Myths Is First Step in Addressing Overpopulation.” Several of the myths Cohen mentions are de riguer for most of the people on the Internet who worry about population.

The first myth Cohen dispels is the idea that human population grows exponentially – it doesn’t (the amount of time it takes world population to double, for example, has declined significantly since the mid-1960s).

Cohen does an excellent job of puncturing a lot of the nonsense about “carrying capacity” which is a far more complex (in many ways almost unintelligible) concept than anti-population zealots imagine or will admit. Cohen has an excellent discussion of the problems involved with the “carrying capacity” concept in his book.

He also defends the Roman Catholic Church against the sort of bigots who claim that religion’s teachings are responsible for the population problem.

If only overpopulation zealots would start reading books and articles by mainstream demographers and population experts rather than getting all their materials secondhand from people with little formal training in population issues (can someone say Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown?)

EPA Vs. Pesticide Alternatives

As environmentalists are quick to tell us, pesticide usage around the world has often been excessive. In addition pesticides are expensive – one of the things which holds back intensive agriculture in parts of the developing world.

An alternative to heavy pesticide use is developing specialized plant species which ward of pesticides naturally, without needing heavy spraying of pesticides. Unfortunately if the Environmental Protection Agency gets its way, research and development into alternatives to chemical pesticides may grind to a halt.

The EPA is proposing to regulate the substances which plants produce to protect themselves against pests and diseases. That’s right – plants which naturally produce pesticides to ward of insects (which is basically every single known species) will have to be tested and given a special “plant-pesticide” label.

The EPA’s proposal is aimed specifically at genetically modified plants. Extremist environmentalists such as Jeremy Rifkin have apparently sold the EPA on the notion that genetically modified organisms need special regulation even though they pose no greater risk to human health or the environment than plants crossbred using traditional methods.

The combination of labeling all such plants as containing pesticides along with additional regulatory costs for registering new hybrids would likely mean an end to much promising development. As John Sanford, Ph.D., president of Sanford Scientific, Inc., put it, “This policy creates a major disincentive for all but a few companies and will force most companies to abandon efforts to develop genetic alternatives to chemical pesticides.”

Norman Borlaug Special Issue of Population News

Normal Borlaug is the most important person you’ve probably never heard of before. Only one of three living Americans to win the Nobel Peace Prize (Elie Wiesel and the dubious Henry Kissinger being the others), ironically it is Borlaug’s success in his field which has led to his toiling away in obscurity, often unable to get serious funding.

Borlaug was the pioneer who in large measure created the Green Revolution. Back when Paul Ehrlich predicted there was no way developing nations could increase their crop yields, Borlaug was in the fields showing them how to do just that. In a profile of Borlaug for the Atlantic Monthly, Gregg Easterbrook doesn’t have to rely on too much hyperbole to claim, “the form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths!”

nbsp;In 1963, the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation set up the International Maize and Wheat Center (CIMMYT) and sent Borlaug to India where he and others planted the first crop of dwarf wheat, a specially bred hybrid, which increased crop yields 70 percent and helped avert a wartime starvation (India and Pakistan were then at war).

The results speak for themselves. By 1968, Pakistan was growing enough food to feed itself. Although Paul Ehrlich claimed it was sheer fantasy that India could ever feed itself, in 1974 it became self-sufficient in cereal production. As Easterbrook notes, when Borlaug arrived India produced about 11 million tons of wheat, while today it grows over 60 million tons.

On the principle that no good deed should go unpunished, Borlaug’s very success has been his downfall. In the 1960s the primary doomsayers were people like Ehrlich who said the Green Revolution could never happen. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, environmentalists emerged who argued the Green Revolution shouldn’t have happened. Arguing that fertilizer-intensive agriculture harmed the environment, “extremist environmentalists” (to use Borlaug’s term) convinced nonprofits like the Rockefeller Foundation to stop funding work like Borlaug’s. The expansion of agricultural production in famine-prone areas such as Africa was no longer seen as a cornucopian fantasy but as an all-too-real threat.

Borlaug appeared before Congress in early August and lashed out at critics who see fertilizer as a greater environmental hazard than mass starvation. The Associated Press quoted Borlaug telling a Senate committee, “Afraid of antagonizing powerful lobbying groups, many international agencies have turned away from supporting the science-based agricultural intensification programs so urgently needed” in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Borlaug, “realistic soil fertility restoration and maintenance … in Africa will be the key to achieving needed agricultural growth rates.”

People like Borlaug can prevent millions, perhaps billions, of people from starving to death — if only the environmentalists will let him.