Michael Fumento Catches Population Action in a Fish Story

In last week’s Population News I reported that the FAO’s 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 Action’s Robert Engelman as saying, “We’re up against the wall. Since the end of the 80s, we’ve 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 Engelman’s 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.

Record Crop Goes Nowhere

In the United States some areas are enjoying record grain harvests (sorry Lester Brown and WorldWatch Institute) and that’s an enormous problem. You see there is so much grain being pumped into the system, it is overloading the ability of railroads to transport all the grain.

An Oct. 26 report in USA Today reported Bill Sebree of NIK Marketing as saying, “It is a terrible mess, the worst we’ve ever seen. We are running 30 days behind schedule for guaranteed grain trains to arrive and we have loaded trains sitting still for up to two weeks. Elevators are losing up to $30,000 on each train that’s late.”

Ironically the upshot could be extremely low prices for grain in the United States. The grain is intended for sale in markets abroad. If it doesn’t get to international markets soon, other nations will turn to alternative suppliers. Farmers then will be forced to either hold on to the grain or sell it domestically. That could mean extremely low grain prices for U.S. consumers.

This whole mess is an excellent example of how sometimes there can be plentiful food but distribution snafus end up making it unavailable to those who otherwise would purchase it.

It’s a Biotech Future

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.

There’s Not Enough People in the World

For the last 30 years all of the population alarmists have been those deathly afraid of population growth, but around the horizon books and articles may begin to sound the alarm against depopulation. Already several articles in newspapers and magazines have touched on the depopulation, the most recent being Nicholas Eberstadt’s October 16 column in the Wall Street Journal, “The Population Implosion” (which is in turn an abbreviated version of an essay Eberstadt wrote for the Autumn issue of The Public Interest.)

Using recently revised population projections from the United Nations, Eberstadt notes that the United Nations estimates the total fertility rate for the developed world is a mere 1.5 and may fall to as low as 1.4 while in “less developed countries” the United Nations projects the total fertility rate will fall to as low as 1.6 in 2050.

The upshot of this is world population in the next century is likely to be a roller coaster ride. Population will continue to grow upward until the middle of the century when it will start shrinking, losing up to 25% of the world’s population every generation through the last half of the century.

Nothing in this is new; despite the doomsayers’ fears the United Nations projection has included this depopulation scenario for quite some time. What is new is that people are starting to look closely at what this will mean for the world. Eberstadt’s article is good, but it won’t be too long until counterparts to Paul Ehrlich show up warning us of the dangers of depopulation.

Eberstadt notes, for example, that if the projection is correct, Africans will outnumber Europeans by more than 3 to 1 (today the two continents have roughly the same population). The population in 2050 will also be relatively old. In the more developed countries such as the United States, there will be 8 times as many older people as there are children. In the extreme case of Italy, only 2% of the 2050 population will be under five years old while 40% of the population would be 65 or older.

Both trends, should they appear more and more likely to come to pass as time goes by, will likely engender the sort of sensationalistic books and claims that we’ve already seen with the overpopulation doomsayers. Lets hope we don’t vanquish the doomsayers next century only to replace them with equally nonsensical fears about depopulation.

Julian Simon Writing for Intellectual Capital

Everyone’s favorite cornucopian Julian Simon is apparently going to be writing regularly for Intellectual Capital, an online magazine of generally conservative/free market thought. In the October 2 issue, Simon wrote a piece full of his usual optimism entitled The Big Picture: Spectacular Progress.

As one of the subheads in his article puts it, Simon believes we live in “an era of unprecedented good times.” He outlines the decline in mortality, the ever declining cost of transportation and other statistical measures of human progress.

Free African Trade, Free Africa from Poverty

In 1955, Africa accounted for 3.1% of total global exports, but by 1990 its share had fallen to only 1.2%. Why?

Francis Ng and Alexander Yeats, economists with the World Bank, argue that it is in part due to the protection policies African nations adopted in the post-colonial period which explain Africa’s wretched economic performance.

The key problem with those projectionist policies in Ng and Yeats view is that the generally high tariffs on raw materials and capital equipment placed African entrepreneurs and producers at a distinct disadvantage.

As they summarize their findings,

The key point that emerges … is that African tariffs on those production inputs are often very high and place domestic producers at a substantial direct cost disadvantage vis-à-vis the fast growing exporters. For the 11 product groups listed (agricultural materials, crude fertilizers and ores, all chemicals, manufactured fertilizers, iron and steel, machinery and equipment, non-electric machinery, electric machinery, transport equipment, professional equipment) … the greatest discrepancy between Africa’s tariffs and those of the fast growing exporters occur for the agricultural raw materials and the crude fertilizer groups. In the former, African duties average 23.6% which is more than 3.2 times their corresponding level in the fast growing countries, while duties for crude fertilizers are 3.6 times higher. This undoubtedly has major adverse implications for Africa’s trade and growth prospects.

This makes eminent sense, but it’s amazing the extent to which many people believe the key to making places like Africa prosper is through protection of local markets. I regularly read leftist accounts which complain about cheap imports being available in developing nations.

Think about it, though — how are African farmers supposed to prosper and feed that continent’s growing population when their own government makes it more expensive for them to buy fertilizer and farm equipment than someone in Singapore or Thailand has to pay? Who benefits from high tariffs which temporarily preserve some local industries while ensuring that many businesses will simply never be created due to high marginal costs?

Ng and Yeats concede this is not the whole explanation of Africa’s sorry state. Political instability and other factors also play major roles in reducing economic growth. But high tariffs are just one more nail in the coffin that has kept Africa destitute while the developing world is on the path to prosperity.

The full text of Ng and Yeats article, “Open Economies Work Better! Did Africa’s Protectionist Policies Cause its Marginalization in World Trade?,” was published in World Development, Vol. 25, No. 6, pp. 889-904, 1997.