Archive for the ‘Lester Brown’ Category

Food, water, agrotech & climate change: More "NeoMalthusian" charlatans, this time at National Geographic

May 20th, 2009 1 comment

[note: my title has a bit of snark, designed to point out the emptiness of some anti-Enviro scare-mongering.]

A reader of my previous post  –  regarding Ron Bailey`s review of the concerns that “famine-monger” Lester Brown recently wrote about at Scientific American  – points me to a similar article, this time the feature article in the June issue of National Geographic.  The article, entitled “The Global Food Crisis; The End of Plenty”, is worth a read.

I look forward to Ron Bailey`s further comments; in the meanwhile I post a few excerpts below (with emphasis added):

“Agricultural productivity growth is only one to two percent a year,” warned Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., at the height of the crisis. “This is too low to meet population growth and increased demand.”

…. Such agflation hits the poorest billion people on the planet the hardest, since they typically spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food. Even though prices have fallen with the imploding world economy, they are still near record highs, and the underlying problems of low stockpiles, rising population, and flattening yield growth remain. Climate change—with its hotter growing seasons and increasing water scarcity—is projected to reduce future harvests in much of the world, raising the specter of what some scientists are now calling a perpetual food crisis. [page 2]

Yet with world population spiraling toward nine billion by mid-century, these experts [from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research,  a group of world-renowned agricultural research centers that helped more than double the world’s average yields of corn, rice, and wheat between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s, an achievement so staggering it was dubbed the green revolution] now say we need a repeat performance, doubling current food production by 2030.

In other words, we need another green revolution. And we need it in half the time.


Ever since our ancestors gave up hunting and gathering for plowing and planting some 12,000 years ago, our numbers have marched in lock step with our agricultural prowess. [page 3]

The industrial revolution and plowing up of the English commons dramatically increased the amount of food in England, sweeping Malthus into the dustbin of the Victorian era. But it was the green revolution that truly made the reverend the laughingstock of modern economists. From 1950 to today the world has experienced the largest population growth in human history. After Malthus’s time, six billion people were added to the planet’s dinner tables. Yet thanks to improved methods of grain production, most of those people were fed. We’d finally shed Malthusian limits for good.

Or so we thought. [page 4]

Today, though, the miracle of the green revolution is over in Punjab: Yield growth has essentially flattened since the mid-1990s. Overirrigation has led to steep drops in the water table, now tapped by 1.3 million tube wells, while thousands of hectares of productive land have been lost to salinization and waterlogged soils. Forty years of intensive irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides have not been kind to the loamy gray fields of Punjab. Nor, in some cases, to the people themselves. [page 6]

But researchers have found pesticides in the Punjabi farmers’ blood, their water table, their vegetables, even their wives’ breast milk. So many people take the train from the Malwa region to the cancer hospital in Bikaner that it’s now called the Cancer Express. The government is concerned enough to spend millions on reverse-osmosis water-treatment plants for the worst affected villages.[page 7]

Africa is the continent where Homo sapiens was born, and with its worn-out soils, fitful rain, and rising population, it could very well offer a glimpse of our species’ future. For numerous reasons—lack of infrastructure, corruption, inaccessible markets—the green revolution never made it here. Agricultural production per capita actually declined in sub-Saharan Africa between 1970 and 2000, while the population soared, leaving an average ten-million-ton annual food deficit. It’s now home to more than a quarter of the world’s hungriest people.[page 8]

But is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world’s food crisis? Last year a massive study called the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development” concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world’s 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness. [page 10]

So far, genetic breakthroughs that would free green revolution crops from their heavy dependence on irrigation and fertilizer have proved elusive. Engineering plants that can fix their own nitrogen or are resistant to drought “has proven a lot harder than they thought,” says Pollan. Monsanto‘s Fraley predicts his company will have drought-tolerant corn in the U.S. market by 2012. But the increased yields promised during drought years are only 6 to 10 percent above those of standard drought-hammered crops.

And so a shift has already begun to small, underfunded projects scattered across Africa and Asia. Some call it agroecology, others sustainable agriculture, but the underlying idea is revolutionary: that we must stop focusing on simply maximizing grain yields at any cost and consider the environmental and social impacts of food production. Vandana Shiva is a nuclear physicist turned agroecologist who is India’s harshest critic of the green revolution. “I call it monocultures of the mind,” she says. “They just look at yields of wheat and rice, but overall the food basket is going down. There were 250 kinds of crops in Punjab before the green revolution.” Shiva argues that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer petroleum-based inputs. Her research has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change. “If you are talking about solving the food crisis, these are the methods you need,” adds Shiva.

In northern Malawi one project is getting many of the same results as the Millennium Villages project, at a fraction of the cost. [page 11]

Canadian researchers found that after eight years, the children of more than 7,000 families involved in the project showed significant weight increases, making a pretty good case that soil health and community health are connected in Malawi.

Which is why the project’s research coordinator, Rachel Bezner Kerr, is alarmed that big-money foundations are pushing for a new green revolution in Africa. “I find it deeply disturbing,” she says. “It’s getting farmers to rely on expensive inputs produced from afar that are making money for big companies rather than on agroecological methods for using local resources and skills. I don’t think that’s the solution.”

Regardless of which model prevails—agriculture as a diverse ecological art, as a high-tech industry, or some combination of the two—the challenge of putting enough food in nine billion mouths by 2050 is daunting. Two billion people already live in the driest parts of the globe, and climate change is projected to slash yields in these regions even further. No matter how great their yield potential, plants still need water to grow. And in the not too distant future, every year could be a drought year for much of the globe.

New climate studies show that extreme heat waves, such as the one that withered crops and killed thousands in western Europe in 2003, are very likely to become common in the tropics and subtropics by century’s end. Himalayan glaciers that now provide water for hundreds of millions of people, livestock, and farmland in China and India are melting faster and could vanish completely by 2035. In the worst-case scenario, yields for some grains could decline by 10 to 15 percent in South Asia by 2030. Projections for southern Africa are even more dire. In a region already racked by water scarcity and food insecurity, the all-important corn harvest could drop by 30 percent—47 percent in the worst-case scenario. All the while the population clock keeps ticking, with a net of 2.5 more mouths to feed born every second. That amounts to 4,500 more mouths in the time it takes you to read this article.

Which leads us, inevitably, back to Malthus. [page 12]


Now, can we discuss these issues without calling each other names?


Ron Bailey and the triumph of Reason? Neo-Mathusians and other "charlatans" exposed!

May 19th, 2009 2 comments

Last year around this time I criticized Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey, for a rather empty post trumpteting dark warnings of “green fascism” in the wake of last year`s grain shortages.  This year Ron is back, with a new post out (“Never Right But Never in Doubt“) in which he attempts to make light of the concerns that “Famine-monger Lester Brown” recently outlined in the May 2009 Scientific American Magazine (“Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?“).  While Ron has dressed up his act a bit this time, the old reflexive enviro-bashing remains, along with an inclination to dodge the hard questions that Brown raises.  Instead, we are left to wonder, has Scientific American been taken over by the green fascists?

Disappointingly, Ron`s latest attempt to bring down Lester Brown also disappoints – not because Ron doesn`t have fair criticisms to make, but because he can never bring himself to engage on the fair concerns of Lester Brown and the editors of Scientific American on issues of population, unmanaged commons and the environment.  Instead of throwing light on the areas of institutional failure that underlay the concerns of “green fascists”, “famime-mongers” and neo-Malthusians, Ron likes rhetoric, and closes by calling Brown an “old charlatan”.

Does Brown deserve all of this rhetoric?  No, even while it is perfectly appropriate to disagree with some of his analysis.

Let me set the stage for my review of Ron`s latest piece by citing some of my comments on his prieceding post:

Ron, I’m surprised that you would go to the effort of spreading rather thin hype about “Green fascism” without bothering to explore from a libertarian perspective whether the Green fascists have grounds for concern, what the institutional underpinnings of environmental and “overpopulation” problems might be, or what our own connections to those problems are.

It’s rather simple, really: we see both cleaner environments and the demographic shift in relatively wealthy nations that protect property rights, as families and other economic actors are largely forced to bear their own costs, which provide incentives to keep both pollution and families under control.

Where populations are still growing rapidly – and environmental degradation continues apace – are societies that do not protect property rights, so that economic actors do not internalize all costs, and families to a significant degree face a free-for-all over resources that are not effectively owned or protected.

“Development” thus presents many aspects of a “tragedy of the commons”, a tragedy that we feed with our own consumer, commercial and industrial demand, which is sourced from assets that are not clearly owned, but are simply up for grabs – whether we are talking about the strip-mining of the oceans, the replacement of the Amazon and SE Asian tropical forests with soybeans and palm oil/biofuel plantations, or industrial and commercial enterprises that don’t bear the costs of their pollution (or of the power plants supplying their electricity).

The “Green fascists” see the destruction at the end of the chains of demand that we in the West pull and the destruction resulting from population growth that is unchecked by the pricing signals from effective ownership, and they are rightly concerned. That they fail to understand the institutional underpinnings is of course to be regretted, but it is a failure that can be remedied by a little education.

That you chose not to use your knowledge of the dynamics of “tragedy of the commons” to educate but instead to decry “Green fascists” is a similar failure, and one that I hope you will regret and try to remedy.

As it is, it seems as if you enjoy the emotional rewards of partisan struggle more than really exercising your noggin or making a contribution to directing attention to where solutions to where real problems might lie – in improved property tights protection and governance in the developing world.

Care to contribute, or just to raise an alarum about the evil greenies?



In his latest post, Ron summarizes Brown as “argu[ing] that the world’s food economy is being undermined by a troika of growing environmental calamities: falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures.”  But even this miscasts Brown, who except for concerns about the over-pumping of the Ogallala aquifer in the high plains of the US Midwest, is clearly focussed mainly not on threats to agriculture in the developed nations, but in the developing ones.  Puzzlingly, Bailey largely agrees with some of the principal areas that Brown points to as reasons for concern, but brushes them off without real discussion or apparent justitication, mainly by telling us how things are no so bad in the developed nations.

First, regarding water, Brown mentions both obvious unstatainability of agriculture as is in places with rapidly falling water tables (particularly China and India) and where the melting of mountain glaciers means lower water supplies during the summer (including China).  Bailey shows off his understanding of the underlying dynamic of an unowned aquifer and the failure to price water correctly, but assumes, without aparent foundation, that water pricing policies will be adjusted without before any agricultural disruptions occur:

“It is true that water tables are falling in many parts of the world as farmers drain aquifers in India, China, and the United States. Part of the problem is that water for irrigation is often subsidized by governments who encourage farmers to waste it. However, the proper pricing of water will rectify that by encouraging farmers to transition to drip irrigation, switch from thirsty crops like rice to dryland ones like wheat, and help crop breeders to develop more drought-tolerant crop varieties.”

Who`s going to make sure that water subsidies will be ended and that water will be “properly priced”?  It doesn`t happen by magic, Ron.

Next, Ron attacks Brown on soil erosion – by conceding the point in developing nations but then presenting a red herring by switching focus to developed nations:

“To be sure, soil erosion is a problem for poor countries whose subsistence farmers have no secure property rights. However, one 1995 study concluded that soil erosion would reduce U.S. agriculture production by 3 percent over the next 100 years. “

The developing world is rife with problems of unsecure land tenure – heck, Zimbabwe is crashing as we speak for that very reason – but instead of enaging on this, we hear that everything is peachy in the US.

Finally, we turn to Brown`s fear of the effects of man-made global warming on agriculture.  Here, too, Bailey completely ignores the developing world in favor of looking only at the US.  Even in our case, Ron first notes that there is “an ongoing debate among experts”, but concedes that  some researchers have concluded that the impact of global warming on U.S. agriculture is “likely to be strongly negative.”  But by pointing to biotechnology research in making crops more heat and drought tolerant as a basis for optimism at home, Ron has essentially conceded that Brown (and the scientists and those funding them) have a basis for concern.

Further, Bailey notes that he agrees with Brown on two points:

“Brown is right about two things in his Scientific American article: the U.S. should stop subsidizing bioethanol production (turning food into fuel) and countries everywhere should stop banning food exports in a misguided effort to lower local prices.”

But rather welcoming Brown`s correct analysis on these points – notwithstanding Bailey`s prior warning that Brown and others were sure to call not for freer agricultural markets but for “green fascism”  –  Bailey can`t resist dissing Brown:  “Of course these policy prescriptions have been made by far more knowledgeable and trustworthy commentators than Brown.”

But despite this evidently weak dismissal of Brown`s concerns on the merits raised in the Scientific American article, Bailey somehow feels justified in completely dissing Brown.  Why?  While it is true that (1) advances in agronomy to date have expanded food supplies to meet the demands of a burgeoning world population (so Brown`s population “bomb” has yet to explode) and (2) Brown lost a famous bet with economist Julian Simon over future commodity prices, how are we doing on the institutional and environmental front in the developing world?  

– are we continuing to wipe out the ocean`s fisheries (which lies behind the Somali shift to piracy), to change ocean chemistry, and to replace important estuaries with shrimp farms?

– are we destroying “public” tropical forests (wrested from natives) and convert them to soybeans and oil palms, despite a long desire by the West to protect their inhabitants and wildlife?

– how sustainable is agriculture in China?

– aren`t we facing continued pressures from population in the developing world to convert wild lands to marginal agriculture?

– how are we doing with water supplies, water tenure and water pricing?

– aren`t we facing continued problems with insecure land tenure?

As I noted recently in comments on the Real Climate thread on tragedies of the common, where markets are unchecked by property rights (and consumer pressure, regulation, trade agreements), they are very effective machines of destruction.

It`s a lack of understanding of this that makes market conservatives right / enviros wrong on SMALL issues (such as Brown`s bet with Julian Simon on commodity prices), but wrong on the BIG ones. Those ranting about “neo-Malthusians seeking to destroy civilization” are simply ignoring or are blind to how consumer and other markets are destroying unowned, unmanaged Nature around the world.

These are the types of problems that have long troubled Lester Brown – and I think Ron Bailey as well.  In any case, Bailey should recognize all of them as problems that stem from a lack of clear and enforceable property rights, in some cases driven by government theft or incompetence.  So why does Bailey feel that the most constructive approach to persuasion is to abjure the elucidation of underlying problems, facilely dismiss concerns and to attack Brown`s motives, by calling him an “old charlatan”?


But this is the type of engagement that we continue to see from “libertarians” and conservatives (such as Robert Bradley and George Will), who seem to reflexively regard enviros as the “enemy”, as opposed to the lack of property rights or the underlying statism that gives rise to the problems that bother the enviros.  Thus we see not a triumph of reason, but of partisan hostility and mudflinging, sometimes as a mask for support for status quo rent-seekers.

It`s all enough to make an inquiring mind ask, will the real charlatans please stand up?  Or sit down?  Or start living up to the principles they say they espouse?