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.

Send Me Your Suggestions

When I started this weekly feature a month ago I was worried about finding enough new material each week. Instead I find myself deluged with enough news stories and journal articles to do an entire year’s worth of news updates. If there’s any topic relating to overpopulation on which you’d like to hear about the latest research, email me and let me know.

Eat Up!

One of the major limiting factors of population size is food. Although his predictions of impending doom have so far proven wrong, Paul Ehrlich is right that if human population outstrips food production, the result would be a disaster. The question becomes, how likely is that disaster to occur? Not likely according to John Bongaarts.

Bongaarts is the author of “Population Pressure and Food Supply,” published in the September 1996 issue of Population and Development Review. Bongaarts analyzes trends in world food production from 1962 to 1989 using Food and Agricultural Organization data.

After a lengthy analysis of the any facets of the change in food production over that period and reasonable expectations about future changes in food production, Bongaarts concludes,

Although any projection to the middle of the next century must be regarded as speculative, on the whole the above illustrative scenario for 2050 appears achievable. Recent short-term projections to 2010 or 2020 based on econometric models by the World Bank (Mitchell and Ingco 1995), FAO (Alexandratos 1995), and the International Food Policy Research Institute (Agcaoili and Rosegrant 1995) also foresee no major obstacles to continued expansion of the food supply. It is therefore likely that serious and persistent global food shortages can be avoided, provided governments vigorously pursue efforts to improve economic policies and facilitate the dissemination of new technology and investment in research and human resource (Bongaarts 499).

The Clean, Green Solution

Sticking to food production for the moment, one of the refrains I hear constantly from people skeptical of claims of increasing food production is that current farming techniques are unsustainable because they rely on manmade pesticides and fertilizers. I happen to think that claim is spurious, but it is also largely irrelevant.

Almost every week a new major discovery is reported in efforts to create more effective farming technologies which often turn out to be far more “environmentally friendly” than current methods. In July, for example, it was announced that Colorado State entomologist Louis Bjostad has made significant progress in developing a natural way to rid corn of the Western corn rootworm, responsible for up to $1 billion in annual crop losses.

Bjostad discovered the rootworm eats corn because of carbon dioxide given off by corn roots. He and his researchers are working on pellets and granules of yeast, baking soda and other materials which could be placed in corn fields which would confuse the rootworms by giving off carbon dioxide. If it works, Bjostad’s discovery would not only be safer but far cheaper than using conventional pesticides.

Bjostad plans to do two more years of field tests to identify which compounds and mixtures are most effective in dealing with the rootworm.