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Can The World Feed Its Population?

by afew Thu May 8th, 2008 at 03:54:32 AM EST

More and more interest is shown on ET in food and agriculture, given the tension that has reigned on commodity markets for some time now, and the high food prices that are the result. These are essential questions in any case, as essential as those regarding energy, to which they're profoundly linked. Not long ago ATinNM suggested we try to put together some position papers, using the Debates box to keep the thread in view.

Elsewhere, asdf posted a comment that (following links through) led to an MIT project rather uglily called the Collaboratorium, that plans to pool knowledge and discussion on climate change. They will have sophisticated tools like computer simulation at their disposal, unlike us, but they propose a scheme for discussion I thought we might ado/apt, (or at least try!). As asdf's comment makes clear in a quote:

Dr. Klein's group is designing an "argument tree" in which contributions must fit into one of four categories: issues needing addressing, options for resolving them, information supporting an option and information rebutting one.

I don't think we can reproduce this formally in a discussion thread, but we can attempt to order the discussion by keeping it in mind. We can start with an main issue or question, and I suggest

Can the world feed its population?

which can be defined and discussed -- by saying, for instance, that "world" here may mean the planet Earth, but also the set of institutions and powers that make up what is sometimes called the international community, it being understood that the latter is strictly limited in its ability to pull rabbits out of the former's hat; and that "population" is dynamic. We can see that the question lights up major topics for discussion: demographics, ecology, agronomy, economics, trade and transport policy, agricultural structure and methods, global versus local, policy elaboration and application and institutions ad hoc, etc.


We can immediately offer a binary yes/no response to the question: it can, or it can't. Under those headings (again, I'm not suggesting we tie debate down to strict formal ordering of the thread, but that we try to be aware of where our contributions fit: is this an argument, a proposition, evidence in favour of the negative or the affirmative?), we can offer propositions like Free trade and markets will solve the problems (it can), or Only considerable human mortality will restore the natural balance (it can't). And we can discuss these propositions and adduce evidence for and against. This will probably turn out to be like herding cats, but we can try -- since it may make reaching positions and organising the evidence for those positions somewhat easier.

I'll kick this off by referring to a couple of recent articles, the first by Edgard Pisani, 90-year-old wise man who served as minister (especially of Agriculture) under De Gaulle, Pompidou, and Mitterand, and on several international commissions, demographist, agronomist, who was interviewed last week in Télérama, where he (cleverly ;)) asks a similar question to the one I picked.

Voilà des années que je lance des cris d'alarme et que je pose la question suivante : le monde peut-il nourrir le monde ? Sans doute pas ! Nous avons, fort heureusement, inventé les moyens de diminuer la mortalité infantile. Mais, ce faisant, nous avons créé une explosion démographique sans précédent. La planète n'est pas faite pour accueillir les neuf milliards d'êtres prévus pour 2050 et leur donner à manger en suffisance. D'autant moins que, pour nourrir ceux qui existent, l'homme a inventé des procédés qui ont déréglé la nature et l'ont rendue moins fertile. Pour installer ce surcroît de population, les villes s'étalent sur les terres les plus fertiles de la planète.For years I've been putting out warnings and asking this question: can the world feed the world? Doubtless not! Very fortunately, we have invented ways of reducing infant mortality. But in doing so we created an unprecedented population explosion. The planet is not built to accommodate the nine billion beings forecast for 2050 and give them enough to eat. Even less so because, to feed those that are already in existence, man invented processes that have unbalanced nature and made it less fertile. To house this additional population, cities are spreading over the most fertile land on the planet.

il est essentiel de se demander de quoi auront besoin neuf milliards d'êtres. En termes d'emploi, de terres, d'eau et d'énergie. Et quelles seront, dans ce contexte, les conséquences de la non-satisfaction des besoins vitaux des hommes. La question alimentaire ne peut se penser que comme l'une des parties d'un ensemble, comme la conséquence de multiples facteurs qui, lui étant étrangers, y contribuent. Il n'existe guère de secteurs qui n'agissent sur l'agriculture et sur lesquels celle-ci soit sans effet....it is essential to ask what nine billion beings will need. In terms of employment, land, water and energy. And what will, in that context, be the consequences of the non-satisfaction of vital needs. The food issue can only be thought of as one of the parts of a whole, as the result of multiple factors that, though separate from it, contribute to it. There are few sectors that do not affect agriculture and on which it has no effect in return.

Asked what has brought about the present situation, Pisani says:

Une multitude de facteurs se sont croisés. L'augmentation de la demande, avec 28,5 millions de bouches supplémentaires à nourrir chaque année. La flambée du pétrole, qui rend les agro-carburants plus séduisants que jamais et qui pousse les exploitants des grandes plaines à déforester des dizaines de milliers d'hectares, en Amazonie par exemple. La multiplication des dommages climatiques, qui fait que les stocks n'ont jamais été aussi bas depuis trente ans. Les politiques internationales de la Banque mondiale, du Fonds monétaire international, qui ont incité les pays du Sud à tout miser sur les cultures d'exportation au détriment de leurs cultures vivrières. La liberté du commerce, qui est souvent fatale aux agricultures les moins favorisées par la nature. Ou encore le déséquilibre des marchés et l'absence de stocks qui ont amené les spéculateurs à faire flamber les prix des denrées alimentaires.A crowd of different factors. Increased demand, with 28.5 million additional mouths to feed each year. Surging oil prices, which make agro-fuels more attractive than ever, and incite the farmers of the great plains to deforest tens of thousands of hectares, in Amazonia, for example. The growth of climate damage, which results in stocks lower than for perhaps thirty years. The international policies of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, which pressured the South into gambling on export crops to the detriment of their food crops. Free trade, which is often fatal to less naturally-favoured agricultures. Or the imbalance of markets and the absence of stocks that have led speculators to set a fire under food prices.

Parler de la crise alimentaire, c'est prendre en considération les dizaines de milliers d'hectares de terres fertiles grignotées par les villes et les océans, année après année. C'est savoir que la Californie vit déjà une compétition dramatique entre la consommation d'eau urbaine et agricole. Que l'agriculture ultraproductiviste est extrêmement vorace en énergie. C'est aussi prêter attention à l'évolution de nos régimes alimentaires : l'augmentation de la consommation de viandes est redoutable pour l'avenir, puisqu'elle a fait exploser la demande de céréales fourragères. La Chine en fait l'expérience. D'ores et déjà les animaux consomment 45 % des céréales mondiales.
Alors il est grand temps de se poser cette question essentielle, non pas en termes de marché mais de subsistance : de quelles agricultures avons-nous besoin et à quelles conditions pourront-elles répondre aux besoins?
Talking about the food crisis means taking account of the tens of thousands of hectares of fertile land nibbled away by cities and oceans, year after year. It means understanding that California is already undergoing dramatic competition between urban and agricultural water needs. That ultra-productivist farming devours energy. It also means paying attention to our diet: growing meat consumption is fearsome for the future, because it creates explosive demand for feed grain. China is finding out about this. Already animals consume 45% of world grain production.
So it is high time to ask this fundamental question, not in market terms but in terms of subsistence: what kinds of agriculture do we need and what are the conditions under which they will be able to meet future needs?

Asked why the question is not being addressed, Pisani says that the ideology and interests of "dominant groups" are opposed to the kind of governance that would be necessary. And he takes a shot at the WTO:

La politique de l'OMC est absurde : vous ne pouvez pas réguler par le marché mondial une denrée aussi essentielle à la vie que la nourriture, et dont les coûts varient du simple au triple suivant les régions du monde. Au contraire, il faudrait que les gouvernements puissent fixer des prix intérieurs favorables à la production et abordables pour le consommateur. Il faut aider les agricultures des pays pauvres en leur apportant les moyens de produire plutôt que les décourager par l'aide alimentaire.The policy of the WTO is absurd: you can't use the global market to regulate a commodity as essential to life as food, of which costs range from simple to triple from one region of the world to another. On the contrary, governments need to be able to set domestic prices that favour production while being affordable for consumers. We must help farmers in poor countries by providing them with the means to produce rather than discourage them with food aid.

Pisani's answer to the question Can the world feed its population? seems to be No, if population goes on rising at this rate and if we go on running agriculture in the same way. Martin Wolf in the FT sees some of the problems and offers his solutions in Food crisis is a chance to reform global agriculture:

... aggregate production of maize, rice and soyabeans stagnated in 2006 and 2007. This was partly the result of drought. Also important, however, have been higher prices of oil, since modern farming is so energy-intensive. With weak growth of supply and strong increases in demand, cereal stocks have fallen to their lowest levels since the early 1980s. Declining stocks undermine the widely shared belief that speculation has driven the rising prices, since stocks would be rising, not falling, if prices were above market-clearing levels.

Wolf and Pisani agree about a number of things there, with the exception of Wolf's final point about speculation, which doesn't seem convincing: essential foodstuffs are commodities it's not easy for "real" buyers to pass up on even at prices that speculation may have played a part in pushing upwards. Wolf doesn't ignore demand and supply problems:

Vastly more worrying than speculation is the weak medium-term growth of supply. The rapid increases in yields of the 1970s and 1980s, at the time of the “green revolution”, have slowed. Given the stresses on water supplies, longer-term supply prospects would look poor even if diversion of land for production of biofuels were not adding to the pressure.

Are prices going to remain high? Two opposing forces are at work. The first is the market, which will tend to bring prices back down as supplies expand and demand shrinks. But the latter is also what we want to avoid, at least in the case of the poor, since reducing their consumption is not so much a solution as a failure. The second force is the current intense pressure on the world’s food system. This is true of both demand and costs of supply. Prices are likely to remain relatively elevated, by historical standards, unless (or until) energy prices tumble.

Or until agriculture becomes less energy-intensive? This doesn't appear to be an option in Wolf's book.

This, then, brings us to the big question: what is to be done? The answers fall into three broad categories: humanitarian; trade and other policy interventions; and longer-term productivity and production.

Humanitarian is quickly dispatched: food aid with mechanisms to make sure it only goes to the deserving poor. Next comes the main point:

Now turn to the policy interventions. Protection, subsidies and other such follies distort agriculture more than any other sector. Alas, the opportunity to eliminate protection against imports offered by exceptionally high world prices is not being taken. A host of countries are imposing export taxes instead, thereby fragmenting the world market still more, reducing incentives for increased output and penalising poor net-importing countries. Meanwhile, rich countries are encouraging, or even forcing, their farmers to grow fuel instead of food.

The present crisis is a golden opportunity to eliminate this plethora of damaging interventions. The political focus of the Doha round on lowering high levels of protection is largely irrelevant. The focus should, instead, be on shifting the farm sector towards the market, while cushioning the impact of high prices on the poor.

So, no subsidies or tariffs, one global market, do not fragment as Pisani says is necessary. The WTO in the Doha round is wrong because it is not going far enough. We need to do something undefined for the poor.

Finally, far greater resources need to be devoted to expanding long-run supply. Increased spending on research will be essential, especially into farming in dry-land conditions. The move towards genetically modified food in developing countries is as inevitable as that of the high-income countries towards nuclear power. At least as important will be more efficient use of water, via pricing and additional investment. People will oppose some of these policies. But mass starvation is not a tolerable option.

There's a strange mix here of belief in pure market ideology, and a kind of militant humanism (or is it hypocrisy?) that sweeps aside opposition in the name of saving lives. Wolf ends on the same note:

We must choose between fragmenting world markets still further and integrating them, between helping the poor and letting even more starve and between investing in improving supply and allowing food deficiencies to grow. The right choices are evident. The time to make them is now.

Letting even more starve... The implication is clear. The present system is not working, and it's not working because there's not enough market.

There are similarities and dissimilarities between these two accounts of the current crisis, but the propositions for the future could not be more radically opposed. The intellectual approach too: Pisani questions what is possible, Wolf is filled with top-down certainty. But the two touch on most of the important points, and so may serve to sketch the lie of the land.

In discussing this, as I suggest above, let's try (without formal constraints) to fit our thinking into a pattern of issue, proposition, evidence for or against a proposition. But have at Pisani and Wolf too, if you like :-)

Display:
They will have sophisticated tools like computer simulation at their disposal, unlike us

We can do simulations.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 03:56:35 AM EST
OK. I was thinking within Scoop.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 04:02:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Do you want to run the simulations on the server or on your own computer?

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:33:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have no simulations to run. But possibly others may, if we want to move towards a/several position papers.

My point above wasn't to bewail the lack of simulation capacity, just to point to the "argument tree" idea (fwiw...)

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 03:24:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I tend towards answering the question by It can, if...

If population rise can be restrained; and if food self-suffiency, at local and regional levels, is the key policy.

So two propositions:

  • population rise needs to be restrained
  • food self-sufficiency is a key policy
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 04:08:37 AM EST
What do you mean by local or regional?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 04:17:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Local in the strict sense of home, village, rural area, suburb (even urban food production).

This could be encouraged and coordinated with "bigger" farming by national policy. But better perhaps regional in the sense regions of the world. See Michel Barnier's position in favour of regional common agricultural policies.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 06:23:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Right. Well I don't see local food self-sufficiency being the slightest bit efficient in lots of the world. Ireland would probably have to convert to something like a potato monoculture again, for a start. Which has its own problems ...

Trade is not intrinsically a bad thing: moving flour slowly (train and sail boat will do!) from continental Europe to Ireland and shipping meat back seems sustainable if you're not assuming civilisational collapse. Flying lettuce around the planet is another issue, of course.

I guess what I'm thinking here is some form of subsidiarity for food - it should be produced as locally as makes sense. I suspect a lot of this would be sorted out simply by pricing the externalities into the shipping and production methods. Maybe a properly regulated market is the best way of doing the job?

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 07:23:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What does the slightest bit efficient mean?

What is efficiency?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:27:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Efficient in the sense of getting as much food output as we can from the available resources.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:42:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Then I don't see what is inefficient about people producing part of their needs (as far as possible) where they are, and with encouraging small farming in the less developed countries rather than see the land abandoned and the cities grow. While obviously understanding that what can be produced is more limited in some places than others, and without proposing to eliminate trade in favour of "autarchy".

Understanding also that regional policy, (eg CAP), can deal with the coordination of a lot of the differences between local capacities.

How far do you think that by "efficiency", you are in fact thinking of comparative advantage?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 11:57:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Being locally self-sufficient means (to me) producing all their food locally, which is what I don't think is practical.

Isn't comparative advantage more-or-less about efficiency?

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 12:09:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I said "local and regional". I don't expect it's possible in most cases to be locally self-sufficient. I do think the EEC attained a fair degree of self-suffiency through the CAP (with problems and unintended consequences, sure).

What kind of efficiency is comparative advantage about?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 12:25:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Local food self-sufficiency is not an absolute requirement, its a benchmark. Every locality should pursue as much of the goal as they can, because for those areas that will certainly fall short, the amount by which they fall short will determine the amount by which surplus locales must exceed their requirements.

However, an urban market ... whether a market in a city or the market consisting of a small town ... is an essential element in sustainable agrarian development, so the level at which food self-sufficiency becomes a goal to consider adopting is the local region, consisting of an urban core and its rural hinterland.

Of course, legalists always want boundaries for definitions, and so units of analysis like local regions give them hissy fits, because its hierarchical ... one local region consisting of a small town and surrounding countryside is part of the hinterland consisting of a small city and its surround small towns and countryside, and that is part of the hinterland of a large city and its surrounding small cities and their surrounding small towns and countryside.

And of course in many high income nations we have planted large, difficult to heat and cool single occupancy homes directly across that countryside, so we have to learn how to plant around those kinds of obstacles.

Every large nation must aim for food self-sufficiency. All of its main regions must aim for as much food self-sufficiency as it can achieve, and some of its regions must arrive at a surplus to the extent that some of its regions fall short.

And every local region must aim to be an active center of agriculture development in its rural hinterland ... even if the peasantry in the rural hinterland presently drive SUV's to work in cubicles eighty kilometres away.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 08:28:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't see the point of encouraging 'local' food production. Properly taxing carbon will support it to some extent and a more rational adjustment of water usage will do the same in some regions while doing the reverse in others. Encouraging a more environmentally rational social geography will discourage or encourage it, depending on what one means by 'local'. It will make personal gardening  and neighbourhood farming less likely due to higher densities, but it will also free up some of the land around cities currently used for suburban sprawl.  However, an attempt to push it as an end in itself will often have a negative effect on fighting global warming and resource efficiency.
by MarekNYC on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 01:08:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
a negative effect on fighting global warming and resource efficiency

Because of..?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 03:28:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In developed countries it means more sprawl, i.e. more areas that are dependent on driving a lot and where it is very difficult to create an effective transport system. You save a little bit on food production but lose big overall. It also ends up wasting arable land because that spread out population is going to require a greater per capita amount of land used for non agricultural purposes.

Unless that is you simply mean local in the sense more stuff from within a few hundred kilometers and less stuff coming in from halfway across the world. If so I agree, at least in areas that have plenty of suitable land nearby. For places like the US southwest where that isn't the case you'll actually see less of that sort of 'local', though what agriculture there is in such areas will be more oriented towards the local market rather than commodity production as it is now.

by MarekNYC on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 03:46:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
By local in developed countries I mean just using what you can near where you are, not seeking to move out just so you can grow vegetables. I think it's more important in less developed countries, where peasant farmers need to be able to stay on the land, produce food for themselves and their local area, plus some cash crops, rather than give up and move to the megapolises.

In the second sense (your paragraph 2), I'd use "regional" rather than local. But yes, I am against consecrating certain regions of the world "food-producing" and shipping food across the planet. To feed the world, I think we should be producing food everywhere, and aiming at reducing transport.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 04:00:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It may encourage clustered networks of infill development around cities, but that is no sprawl.

You are looking at one dimension of the problem, density per square kilometer at the level of a country/district ...

... but sprawl is not simply having people live outside a densely urbanized large metropolis.

Its having them live outside of a densely urbanized large metropolis, at low densities per hectare for the median occupied hectare.

Clustered suburban villages with occupied densities of 400/km^2 spread across a former suburban hinterland surrounded by truck gardens, with the occupants of the former suburban sprawl going to the closest suburban village for their main jumping off point for the regional transport system ... whether commuting to work elsewhere, traveling for shopping, education, leisure, or collecting items they have purchased ...

... that's not suburban sprawl.

But if we are going to continue having large numbers of people living in large cities ... IOW, by "going to continue", if we are going to live in that way sustainably ... then that kind of settlement system is going to have to surround those cities, because the current system of flying fresh strawberries from Chile for a supermarket in Northeast Ohio is a system that is premised on cheap and abundant energy resources ... and its economic growth is therefore premised on an inexhaustible supply of cheap and abundant energy.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 08:42:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Can population rise be restrained? I am thinking that the current economic ideology does not like to accommodate it... As we read in this morning's Salon:
Fran:

In a survey of life in the 27 European Union countries, the Institute for Family Policy said that pensioners now outnumbered teenagers, and more people were living alone.

The report, The Evolution of the Family in Europe 2008, which was unveiled in the European Parliament in Brussels, described the European birth rate as "critical".


Thus it seems, the rich bits of the world cannot handle a decreasing population, because this would mean more old, unproductive people in relation to the younger, productive human resources. Then how will we have growth, which as we know is important beyond all other factors? The aging of Europe is so often mentioned in economic type articles in the press, and used as yet another indication of the failure of Europe. However, if global population size is of concern, the rich bits of the world will really have to figure out how to operate their economies with a diminishing productive population. Given how productivity has risen over the last N year, I don't see why this should be at all a problem. Unless one is a growth happy ideologist for whom the only legitimate use of productivity growth is increasing output of available goods, services, and 'wealth'. The ones that point to the need of restraining population growth and a bit later bemoans the aging Europe, unwilling to breed enough of the next generation, are really just asking the poor, brown inhabitants of the planet to stop breeding, please.
by someone (s0me1smail(a)gmail(d)com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 05:14:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If employers weren't so ageist, with the chances of being in employment shrinking drastically with increasing age (especially after 50), then older people could be more productive and contribute to the growth of the economy.

Expertise and experience could be retained and transferred more effectively, health outcomes are likely to be better, especially if flexible working (reduced hours to better meet individual needs) is really pushed as a good way forward not just for women with caring responsibilities but for disabled people and older people too.

As you say, the ideology needs to change.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 05:31:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would say the same thing.. but the ifs are not as strong.

If you reduce beef and meet to a tenth (basically what a human body would need according to some emerging consensus, which could eb wrong), we would basically be able to have around 4 times more grain availbale.. this probably makes a population limit of 20 billion people, half of them eating a ration of meat.

if your reduce agricultural intensity to rational levels by using standard industrial techniques you  can probably feed comfortably 10 billion people .. well more than probably, mostly for sure.
Now.. what would happen if we take fertilizers out of the equation and we do no allow for more than 200 km distances in the food transport...

The the intensty threshold is reduced, greena griculture becomes a need adn soil uses and monocultives disappear.. the numbers change dramatically... so I know nothing
.. I have never read any number which makes sense in this case.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 02:10:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
what would happen if we take fertilizers out of the equation and we do no allow for more than 200 km distances in the food transport...

There are two suppositions there that don't call for a Boolean AND.

Also: what do we mean by fertilisers?

What if it's a question of aiming at reducing distances (200km is an arbitrary choice...) rather than organising  food production in certain parts of the world to be transported to others?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 03:37:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You are right ont he distance issue. it is more like rationalizing the number of transports from one are to the other.

And by fertilizer I eman anything which needs. I did not count natural fetilizers or so-called "alternative ones".

My point was I have nto seen anythign regardign the effect of complete lack of oil in agriculture (considering machines can be driven by electricity), nor the effects of area redsitribution if one wants to minimize transportation.

I just indicated my lack of knowledge.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 04:27:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... as much as we reasonably can?

Its clear that on a spectrum from fresh leafy vegetables at one extreme to dry grains at the other, there are natural, intrinsic priorities on what we would wish to localize first, based on energy cost to transport and store.

All areas should be as self-sufficient as possible in fresh vegetables and fruits.

At the other end of the spectrum, grains can be readily warehoused and transport over long distances with fractions of the energy inputs required the logistics of fresh fruits and vegetables grown and consumed a continent apart.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 08:50:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's clear dry grains can be stored and transported conveniently over long distances without the need for air transport. If only for the reason invoked by Deni, that bad years in one area of the globe need to be compensated for by shipping in grain from another, there will always be a certain amount of trade. Yet -- for the same reason, and it is after all central to the debate -- concentrating even grain production in a handful of areas runs the risk of short supply if more than one of these areas goes on the blink at once, which is currently the case with world wheat production. This is why it is safer for all regions of the planet (or major nations) to aim to be as self-sufficient in staples as possible. The chances that there will be enough to go round for all will be higher.

As Deni says, this does not necessarily involve the free market, but instead could call for some form of global governance.

Meanwhile, growing as locally as possible whatever perishable fruit and vegetables are possible seems more efficient (and less environmentally destructive) than flying these around, and more likely to deliver the vitamins and other healthful substances involved as freshly as possible to as broad a cross-section of the population as possible, in whatever part of the planet.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 09:31:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This goes back to the unit of analysis.

Putting a priority on localizing fruit and vegetable production means growing fruits and vegetables locally wherever ... and, indeed, in our current farming system, it means increasing fruit and vegetable production in many farming area.

Putting a priority on as much regional self-sufficiency as we can reasonably accomplish means that every local region, even if not every locale in that region, will engage in some grain or other staple food production (it may, after all, be tubers rather than grains that dominate in many areas).

So, IOW, grain (and other staple food) production far more locally regionalized than at present, but not necessarily localized.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 09:50:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's as I see it.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 10:25:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What's as you see what? IOW, are you saying:

"Yes, (What you said) this (este) is how I see it too."

or

"No, (What I originally said) that (ese) is still how I see it."

I'm reading the first, but seeing somebody might possibly read the second ... obviously if we were talking face to face, it would be clear from tone of voice and expression.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 12:33:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I meant option one, ie I agree with you (I was called away at that instant and dashed in a response, sorry if it wasn't clear).

Speaking of "regional", I've been trying to use it here as "regions of the world", (though I realize it may more often be used to speak of regions of a country), and would be interested in your take on "regional agricultural policy" as suggested in this diary.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 01:06:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Technically and legally could the WTO regulate certain staple crops and remove the monopoly of seed ownership?  

As you've pointed out before, owning seed means control over that part of the food chain.  I find the idea of multinational companies having that kind of power over staple crops and who can grow them and how much the seeds cost absolutely abhorrent.

Population is another issue - where we have decling populations in some European countries due to a lower birth rate, why then do Governments insist on encouraging people to have more children purely to solve the pensions crisis and welfare costs associated with the eldery population? Can Government policy be adjusted to take a longer term and more sustainable view on wider issues?

Other selfish and unnecessary use of land and water resources includes golf courses, as well as the alarming trend to grow crops for fuel even though it's apparent that there is not enough space for both fuel and food to be grown as crops.

How about WTO/WHO leading the way on encouraging Governments to encourage people to cut down on eating meat?  This ties in with the preventative health agenda, to increase physical activity and healthy eating.  Maybe we need to bring rationing back in?!

Thanks for putting this together, afew.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 05:06:50 AM EST
where we have decling populations in some European countries due to a lower birth rate, why then do Governments insist on encouraging people to have more children

Racism. Proper native babies are much better than those nasty brown immigrant ones - I hear they're born with horns.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 07:25:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It is not racism. A careful analysis of the economic consequences yields, that only under very special conditions immigrants can replace a healthy demography. Most immigrants coming to Europe had no proper school education, nor a sense for that education is very important. Furthermore even somewhat qualified immigrants need to stay in Europe when they retire (and consume mostly local products and paying taxes in Europe) for being a gain to our societies, but often they want to go back to their home country.
The flow of necessary immigrants to keep the demography stable is huge and would lead to dramatically increased populations (given realistic immigrant ages, you can't expect all immigrants to come directly after finishing school or university). Such flows of immigrants are very difficult to integrate into our societies, although that maybe easier for countries like France or UK, where immigrants at least often can speak the language of the country.

Economists often ask for lower barriers for highly qualified immigrants, but at the same time will tell you that low qualified immigrants are a bad for the economy.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 08:53:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Why do we need to keep demographics stable? It seems that with proper redistribution policies to ensure the lower end of the income spectrum doesn't fall of the cart we could do well with less total production. Sure, people might have to make do with slightly diminished quantities of lifestyle, but an aging population will surely not keep us from feeding and clothing all, and even maintain some of our luxury indulgences?
by someone (s0me1smail(a)gmail(d)com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:06:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Why shouldn't demographics be stationary?

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:30:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But in a democratic frame work it is unlikely that you get majorities by telling the people you can come along with less even if you could have more.
And it is a question of speed of change as well. Currently in Germany about 50-60% of the children are born, which would be necessary to keep each generation the same size. 80-90% would still be environmental responsible and would be easier to handle from an economic point of view.
In an aging society feeding and clothing are not the only important issues. (Health) Care for the elderly e.g. is another thing and I don't believe that communism works. So you can not redistribute everything. As not all countries are going to follow, you would see a lot of talented hard working people leave Europe (e.g. to Switzerland).

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers
by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:35:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But in a democratic frame work it is unlikely that you get majorities by telling the people you can come along with less even if you could have more.
What if you in fact couldn't have more? The politician that promises more will still get elected.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 10:01:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
An emphasis on higher quality, longer lasting durable goods would help, as would the recapturing of the productivity gains into labor rather than into the investing class.  This would enable us to do at least as well with less effort, and that effort could be spread over more people.

Why shouldn't a car last 20 yrs, and you not have to be continually buying one?  Why should a factory, like the one I used to work in, that needed 4,000 people and now needs only 1500 to produce the same output, still have 4,000 people working less hours yet receiving good benefits.  We shall have less, we had best learn to make better use of what we have-it can easily be sufficient.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man...'" Robbie Robertson

by NearlyNormal on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 04:35:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actual economists or the ones that write opinion columns in newspapers?

And if we could have references for the "careful analysis" it'd be helpful.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:09:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A link to a book where it is explained is here, certainly there are sources in the book, but I have it not where I am currently.
The study of course is about Germany and orientates on the institutional frame work of Germany, so other countries can have slightly different results, especially  ones with lower social state benefits, which are an important reason for the loss.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers
by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:24:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What would a healthy, stationary demography look like given the current mortality rates by age in, say, West Germany?

Not like the traditional pyramid. but more like an obelisk.

Why do qualified immigrants need to stay after they retire? If qualified immigrants go back to their countries of origin they pay taxes into the system when they're working and don't draw benefits when they're old.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:30:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Define "stationary demography". In a society with steady life expectancy increase, a generational stable society still grows. So the base really has to be a little bit smaller than the upper stocks.

                   |
                  |||
                 |||||
                |||||||
                |||||||
               ||||||||| age phase out
               |||||||||
               |||||||||
                |||||||
                |||||||
                 |||||    
                 |||||   reduced base, making up for increased lifetime

However, fertility was not always the same. So there are e.g. babyboomers. There outphasing has not yet really started, so at the moment the number of children makes nearly up for the number of dying people (partially less than expected because of longer life spans), but when the baby boomer generation dies, there most likely won't be a baby boom of corresponding magnitude.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 11:31:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So, isn't it possible that the "pensions crisis" is simply a transitory phenomenon due to the baby boomers and that given the size of a "sustainable" population the "right" thing to do would be to let the population shrink after the baby boomers are gone?

In the meantime, the "pensions crisis" might be a political problem, not really an economic impossibility to provide a dignified standard of living for everyone. All economics is political economy.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 02:38:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It depends on what you mean with transitional. Life expectancy may increase for a long time.
Lower birth rates will increase the the old-age dependency ratio asymptotically to a certain value, if not accompanied with an increase in life expectancy.

More concrete I have from destatis the picture below. It shows in blue the number of people older than 65 years per 100 people between 20 and 65. In green the number of people below 20, as the sum of these people is expected to be those who can't earn their own income. For the modelling it is assumed, that net immigration will be around the value of the last ten years (so slightly higher than currently), constant fertility and some reasonable assumption about life expectancy.

What makes economic stress is not the absolut level, but the change, if one assumes productivity gains. So from the mid 20s to the mid 30s Germany will suffer, but untill about 2020, there it will be less painfull than the last 15 years. (In Germany the baby boomers started later than in the US, only around the mid 50s, so they start to ordinary retire around 2020)

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:48:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If the life expectancy keeps increasing eventually retirement age would have to be delayed to 75 or something. But then you'd have a problem of unemployment in the under-35 age range. The elephant in the living room is the fact of overproductivity which Metatone keeps hammering on.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri May 9th, 2008 at 03:13:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"If qualified immigrants go back to their countries of origin they pay taxes into the system when they're working and don't draw benefits when they're old."

I don't know if you want to strip people from their social security retirement payments, just because they leave the country.
But there is certainly a level of qualification and earnings, where you have contributed your share by having paid taxes, yes.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 11:55:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I see, you want to crash our economy and impose your quasi-religious beliefs on others by force. Well, maybe the reason this is not done is because we have constitutions in most European countries, which guarantee certain freedoms?

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers
by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 08:37:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That may be one of the most disproportionate responses to a comment I've seen in a long time. What on earth are you talking about? I see no link whatsoever between In Wales's comment and your response.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 08:56:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You don't see a link?
Other selfish and unnecessary use of land and water resources includes golf courses,
So something which is not necessary is at the same time selfish. And we should not do unnecessary things, even when they are fun, relatively healthy and practically without environmental consequences. You don't think that would crash the economy? When govs reduce the punishment of families, which is given by our institutional framework, e.g. in the retirement system, then this unsustainable and without seeing the wider issues?
Who defines what is unnecessary? You? In Wales? Is it just what you really need to survive? So 90% of what all people in the west do in their daily jobs is just done because of we are so selfish idiots?
If you take the right to tell others in such detail what they are allowed to do and what not, than I should not call that quasi-religious beliefs? If you don't want to use force=state power, I can of course ignore this, but I guess this is not what In Wales wanted.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers
by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:19:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And we should not do unnecessary things, even when they are fun, relatively healthy and practically without environmental consequences.
Are you talking about golf courses in water-poor areas (say, Arizona or Spain)? It is one thing to play golf in the Scottish highlands (marginal land for most uses other than grazing sheep) and a very different one to build (and maintain) a golf course where the natural terrain is not grassy.

Do our Constitutions protect the right to behave unsustainably?

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:26:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wales is rather rainy isn't it?

If really Spain or Arizona was meant I apologise for my overreaction, but it is not untypical for ET to accuse something as wasteful, which is not more wasteful than other things done, because it is overproportionally done by relatively rich people.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:44:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Is golf a game of the rich in Germany? It's only moderately so in Ireland, with public golf courses and so on.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:50:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ireland is also naturally windy, grassy and wet.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:50:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sure. Thought they have a bad habit of building fancy courses in scenic locations, which is a bit annoying. I don't think they need a whole lot of irrigation.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:51:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I just mean that the weather explains how you can afford to have public golf courses.

It's like grass football/rugby/cricket pitches: here in London they're everywhere. As are grass outdoors tennis courses. Every wondered why Wimbledon is played on grass while Roland Garros is played on dirt? At least regulation tennis can be played on dirt where the climate doesn't support it.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 10:00:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yup, and I just checked and it appears that a lot of courses do use irrigation systems during drought conditions here. Which isn't all that often. Even in the nicest climates the short, smooth grass needs extra water.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 10:03:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
a lot of courses do use irrigation systems during drought conditions

Thus exacerbating the drought conditions.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 10:09:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Don't know what water they're using: they could easily store a lot of it or use other untreated water sources.

Water shortages in Ireland are pretty much due to poor infrastructure investment - as of a few years ago Dublin was losing more water from its old water distribution system then was being used by households.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 10:15:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Water shortages in Ireland are pretty much due to poor infrastructure investment - as of a few years ago Dublin was losing more water from its old water distribution system then was being used by households.

Sounds like the situation in London, which leads to a situation where they have to impose hosepipe bans in the summer but at the same time the Victorian water mains are leaky and household water consumption is not metered but paid on a flat fee.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 10:22:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Why is grass needed for a golf course anyway? Just because they have lots of grass in Scotland, and so everybody thinks it's needed? Is there any real reason, other than aesthetics, for not having just bare soil (or even sand)?
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 10:22:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would bet it is a game of (relatively) rich German (and other Northern European) retirees in Spain.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:51:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think so and certainly most people think so and therefore it probably is, simply because most people wouldn't go to a golf field, if they don't feel to be part of the upper class, even if using the field would be affordable.
I wasn't aware that this is not international given the different way golfers are used for promotion compared with a more normal sport like football.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers
by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 11:49:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Rich people are wasteful because they can afford to be, whether or not the community at large can afford them to be.

And, from a global point of view, you and I are rich and wasteful.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:55:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Constitutions and societies are based on compromises about what is permissible. You seem to think that state force should be used to protect your(?) right to spend as much water as you like to maintain a golf course.  

practically without environmental consequences

If that's the case, then no problem. But what if it isn't?

So 90% of what all people in the west do in their daily jobs is just done because of we are so selfish idiots?

Well, yes. But why restrict it to the West (whatever that is today)?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 09:38:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Certainly there are countries where the agriculture is so unproductive with regard to the use of labour, that most people have to work on the fields to produce food, cloth and a roof on top of everybody, so that even with defining everything else as waste, in those countries most do useful stuff.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers
by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 11:52:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sure, but that's a lot less than not-West.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 11:56:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I could have written "in the more or less developed world". That I've written West doesn't mean only West. But it is probably still a significant part of the world which is living close to the edge of survival.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers
by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 12:48:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
what???

After the fight against golf coruses, and residences and wasteful agriculture we are having here because we DO NOT have water.. i repeat we do nto have water..., check the diaries or the newes about Barcelona getting ready for water restrictions AT HOME (we have water restriction in resdiences, golf and soem agriculture for months now) this summer if it does not start raining and fast).. how can you say that golf courses are not wasteful?

here they are seen as a sin..pure evil..

It is true that you might be overreacting..but oh boy I think you should live in bartcelona right now.. with the perspetive of not being able to a shower for days to change your opinion.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 02:03:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There are three levels of most questions "can the WTO ... ?"

Procedural level: under the current agreements in force, can they revise the way they enforce those agreements to permit ...

Huh, I don't know. I have been more focused on what horrible protectionism corporations are trying to smuggle into the Doha round, marketed as "property rights protection to enable free trade in Intellectual Property".

It is straightforward that if the individual member states where IP has been granted elect to exclude something from their IP system, then that flows through to whatever WTO agreements are in place to respect the IP entitlements granted in other member states. That's how the agreement on AIDs drugs in low-income nations was arrived at ... the member states that had granted the Intellectual Property arrived at an agreement on the terms and conditions where a less restrictive freedom of use would apply. Once the member states have agreed to that, there is no longer an IP infringement to bring up through the WTO mechanisms.

Off the top of my head, though, I do not know how much leeway the WTO itself has to step in and exclude something in particular. It probably has more rights than are exercised, because WTO trade tribunals have a history of absurdly restrictive interpretations of public interest exceptions.

The second level is the technical possibilities of what the agreement itself can do. Since they are arrived at by consensus, they can only be changed by consensus, which means getting this kind of agreement as part of the Doha round. The Doha round is such a stinker that we would probably still be better off if it fails to get through then getting it through with that concession ... but in any event, if its agreed to, which means a new consensus, then yes, automatically the WTO would no longer be available to try to enforce Intellectual Property in the areas that are excluded.

The third level is whether something is politically possible ... that is, whether there is any bloc that might be able to present this as an item it would like to see added, and in return for which it would be willing to accept something that it has refused to accept to date.

That would, I think, be the bloc that contains China, India and Brazil (and a host of others, but those are the three driving forces in the bloc). And, yes, they might be willing to take this on board, but only if they are seriously interested in the Doho round going anywhere. They might just be playing a delaying game, hoping for a Democratic administration in the US to allow them to stand down from guarding against the threat of Doha for a while.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 12:51:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
   My opinion is that feeding 9 billion people is possible, but only with industrial agriculture. I could try to argument this, but I am very bad at writing (long) articles and there are already some that have done much better than I could possibly manage. A start could be this very good article by Stuart Staniford at The Oil Drum.
   Regarding the local vs globalised agriculture I think there is no argument here. The food supply needs to be global, otherwise a period of bad weather in a local area could mean famine. Now this does not mean that we need automatically more free market, since that would imply more volatility than there is already, which is by definition bad for the security of supply.
by Deni on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 08:52:38 AM EST
... extent to which industrial, oil-fed agriculture can maintain its high per acre yields while increasing its extremely low per-BTU-input yields, when compared to a peasant with a hoe on a hectare or two in Africa.

IOW, industrial agriculture is going to struggle to maintain its output over the coming five decades, and for that will require new technologies to be developed that do not yet exist, while there is no such technological hurdles to clear for rapid and ongoing increases in productivity in African peasant agriculture over the next five decades.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 08:54:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've studied this a lot over the years and I don't see any problem whatsoever in feeding everyone. I think the planet could easily handle a population of up to 20 billion or so. There's just a lot of people who still buy into the Malthusian fallacy, which simply isn't accurate. The idea that people consume resources isn't quite true. Well, they do consume them but they also produce them. People themselves are a resource, the most valuable resource of all. So more people means a net increase in resources. The more people there are the more brains there are to solve problems, and the more food, energy and other resources there will be. Always.  It's inevitable. That's why the world's population keeps growing. It's not due to a lack of food, but to an ever increasing amount of food. Basic biology really. It's physically impossible for any population to exceed its food supply. It's simply scientifically impossible. If there wasn't more food then populations don't grow. Mother nature knows best.

Buckminster Fuller explains this all very, very clearly. He also explains why peak oil will set off an economic boom, not a collapse. When Ehrlich and others were predicting a population explosion and mass starvation by the end of  the century, he was predicting that larger populations would lead to mass affluence. And he was right. Check out his life work. "Ideas and Integrities" and "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth" are good places to start.

The current problems aren't really due to a lack of food. Last year's rice harvest, for instance, was the largest in history. There's plenty of food, it's just not being distributed efficiently or equitably, or used efficiently. Hunger in some areas, but obesity epidemics in many others. The increase in food demand in many places (China in particular) isn't due to increased population but increased affluence, which means they're using much more grain to produce meat. The starvation in the world today isn't a biological problem. It's a social, economic and political problem. Those problems will remain until they're solved, no matter what size the population.

by mikep on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 12:59:43 PM EST
Can you point us to one reasonably brief Buckminster Fuller resource online that we can go to to get a taste? (I'd love to go through his life's work, but it's a question of time :-))

It's a social, economic and political problem. Those problems will remain until they're solved, no matter what size the population.

Isn't that somewhat in contradiction with what goes before? What happens if the population doubles and the social, economic and political problems remain the same? Mass hunger on the one hand, obesity and excessive meat-eating on the other?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 03:45:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And people convert material acquired from the ecosystem and elsewhere into resources.

But be on guard against the fallacy of general substitutability.

The central relationship for ecological economics is:

Sustainable + Unsustainable = Unsustainable

That is, if we have a sustainable transport system and an unsustainable agricultural production system, we do not have a sustainable way to feed urban populations.

If we have an unsustainable transport system and an sustainable agricultural production system, we do not have a sustainable way to feed urban populations.

Only if we have a sustainable transport system and a sustainable agricultural system, and that sustainable agricultural system yields a surplus that meets the needs of the urban population, do we have a sustainable way to feed urban populations.

And then, if we have that, but we do not have sustainable settlement systems, then we still do not have a sustainable way for people to live in cities.

Fortunately, there is no latch in place that holds prices for fossil fuel energy sources down until the fossil fuel energy runs out. Instead, prices start to climb starting from just around the peak amount that we can produce.

So the first fumbling, stumbling around to look for solutions to the fact that our abundant cheap energy is non-renewable and our renewable energy sources all have limits in their sustainable yield can take place in an environment of relative resource abundance, and we can begin the process by mining the substantial energy inefficiency built into the system that developed in the context of ultra-cheap energy.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 09:04:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
http://reactor-core.org/operating-manual-for-spaceship-earth.html

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 11:40:40 PM EST
See also:

http://reactor-core.org/grunch-of-giants.html

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 8th, 2008 at 11:45:06 PM EST
Thanks for the Buckminster Fuller references.

Don't consider this in any way an expression of opinion on Buckminster Fuller, but the site you link to opens its main page thus:

Reactor Core -- because ideas are like nuclear bombs. Presenting Alternative Food, Alternative Health, and Alternative Thought in the cause of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Thought, and Uncensored Truth

Have you seen this video? The Great Global Warming Swindle (BBC Documentary). It refutes everything in Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth.

Repent, for the Kingdom of God has arrived. The deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk, but this wicked generation will never inherit except they repent.

Again, no reflection on B. Fuller. Just a strange vibe.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 9th, 2008 at 03:38:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Thanks for the Buckminster Fuller references."

You are, of course, welcome.  As for the nature of the site, I have not even looked at their main page.  I "googled" author, title and full text and got what I was seeking.  I would hope that this is not a case of "look at the source and think nothing of it."  While I have been aware of Fuller for >30 yrs and have respect for his body of work and his personal integrity, I have never read either of the referenced works. Certainly Fuller is not responsible for the views of his admirers. What ever differences I may have with the people behind "reactor-core" I still appreciate their making available online full text copies of,(at least some), of Fuller's works.

In a similar vein about seven years ago I purchased copies of Adam Smith's major works: "Wealth of Nations", "Theory of Moral Sentiments", "Lectures on Jurisprudence", etc, Glasgow bicentenary Edition, in a soft cover edition, dirt cheap, from Liberty Fund, which, if memory serves, sponsors essay contests for college scholarships on subjects related to the "ideas"  of Ann Rand. Even in my 20s I gagged after the first chapters of "Atlas Shrugged" and I certainly do not subscribe to the agenda of the Liberty Fund.  I also picked up copies of the major works of David Hume at the same time.

On these matters I take a position similar to that espoused by longtime California legislator Jessie Unru about dealing with lobbyists: "You got to be able to go to their parties, eat their food, drink their whiskey and f#$k their women and then get up the next morning and vote against their bill."  Would that we had politicians who could follow his advice.  But as for online full text copies of works of interest I say "Thank you very much." This is regardless of their views unless I have reason to suspect they may have edited or especially altered the work.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 9th, 2008 at 04:55:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You're quite right and I did underline that I meant no reflection on Buckminster Fuller (whose views and contributions I too have been aware of, though not in full detail, for thirty-forty years).

My request to mikep was just to point out to him that it would have been nice if he'd given us a link... Thanks again for taking the trouble!

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 01:44:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I did just read the "reactor-core" page from your link. Yikes!  Bucky meets Jesus.  They manage to make both legacies seem crazy. There are, I believe, other full text postings of Bucky's works, if reading texts on this site make you feel slimy.  This might be an exception to my general rule about provenance.

Thanks.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 9th, 2008 at 06:14:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep, yikes is the word. Which is all I meant.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat May 10th, 2008 at 01:46:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The answer to this question is obviously "no, it can't." The reason for this answer: It already isn't.

This is not a question about whether there is enough cropland for some GM algae or Soylent Green food to be produced and then distributed "fairly" by some ideal socialist world government, it's a question about how food will be distributed given an unequal distribution of wealth. Throughout history there have been rich people who could feed themselves well (compared to their fellows) and others who starved. There are people starving today, even though there is obviously "enough" food to go around.

So the only point of the discussion is to determine where the cutoff point between the starving and the non-starving falls, and how many people are on each side of that point. In order to answer the question of how the world will feed a population of 9 billion, first you must answer the question of why it was not able to feed a population of 100 million, or 1 billion, or 6 billion.

by asdf on Tue May 13th, 2008 at 11:57:04 AM EST


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