Monday, June 6, 2011

Eco-nomics: Malthus and Global Warming - Will There be Enough Food?

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Over the weekend, The New York Times had an interesting and provocative article on the fate of the world food supply in the face of global warming.  And, once again, we are faced with the prospect of a planet that keeps adding more people and a food supply that might not be able to keep up.  Similar to debates in the 1960s and 1970s that went away with the Green Revolution, new debates are beginning to arise about how, and if, humanity will adjust:

Perhaps the most hopeful sign nowadays is that poor countries themselves are starting to invest in agriculture in a serious way, as many did not do in the years when food was cheap.

In Africa, largely bypassed by the Green Revolution but with enormous potential, a dozen countries are on the verge of fulfilling a promise to devote 10 percent of their budgets to farm development, up from 5 percent or less.

“In my country, every penny counts,” Agnes Kalibata, the agriculture minister of Rwanda, said in an interview. With difficulty, Rwanda has met the 10 percent pledge, and she cited a terracing project in the country’s highlands that has raised potato yields by 600 percent for some farmers.

Yet the leading agricultural experts say that poor countries cannot solve the problems by themselves. The United Nations recently projected that global population would hit 10 billion by the end of the century, 3 billion more than today. Coupled with the demand for diets richer in protein, the projections mean that food production may need to double by later in the century.

Unlike in the past, that demand must somehow be met on a planet where little new land is available for farming, where water supplies are tightening, where the temperature is rising, where the weather has become erratic and where the food system is already showing serious signs of instability.

“We’ve doubled the world’s food production several times before in history, and now we have to do it one more time,” said Jonathan A. Foley, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. “The last doubling is the hardest. It is possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

The debate has been labeled as one between the Malthusians (i.e. those pessimistic about food supplies keeping ups with population) and economists (who generally believe that with dwindling supplies come higher prices and strong incentives to innovate). The author of that article has a follow-up in the Times' Green blog that discusses precisely this debate.  The tenor of his article and his blog post is essentially 'this time we might not be able to innovate out of the problem:'

In general, these pessimists about the human future have turned out to be wrong — so far. The missing ingredient in doomsday prognostications, about the food supply or anything else, is an appreciation of the power of innovation to solve problems.


Economists consider Malthusianism, at least as understood in modern times, to be a discredited doctrine. From their perspective, one powerful lever explains why innovation always seems to come to the rescue when it is needed most: prices.

Most people intuitively understand that the reason prices rise in times of scarcity is to allocate the available supply. It may be less obvious that higher prices serve another, more crucial function: they call forth additional supply. Higher prices reverberate through an economy like a clarion call, saying to capitalists everywhere: Produce more!


“Where Malthus and his modern-day followers go wrong is that they miss the power of prices to drive the technological change that has helped societies adapt to all kinds of events and will help us to adapt to climate change,” Michael Greenstone, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me by e-mail. “It is certainly possible that agricultural prices may end up being higher, but the apocalyptic visions of shortages are not supported by the long history of markets directing people to innovate in the areas where it is needed most.”

Without question, the potential for agriculture to adapt to climate change, to higher demand and to the other problems that confront it is substantial. Farmers can grow different varieties; they can plant them earlier to avoid hot spells; they can invest capital in water-saving systems like drip irrigation.

Within limits, agriculture can move north as the climate warms; some projections show wheat being grown in the future as far north as the shores of Hudson Bay, and even in parts of Alaska.

Gary Toenniessen, head of agricultural programs at the Rockefeller Foundation, pointed out to me that if prices got high enough, much of the United States could grow two crops a year instead of one. That is already done in parts of the country where winter wheat is grown, and it is being done even more intensively in Asia.

Both are very interesting reads and worthy of your investment in time, but the point I was to make here is that the price of food has many effects. Yes, it does provide a strong inventive to innovate, to use land and water more carefully, etc., but is also have an effect on households: larger families become more and more expensive.  Which, of course, was really Malthus' point in the first place - that humans respond to these market signals.

So, I am aligned with the economist camp described above, but I believe that if we do struggle with food production, the resulting higher prices will have a myriad of effects: agricultural innovation, shrinking households, more kitchen gardens, etc.  It is wrong, in other words, to focus only on whether science will keep up with humanity's appetite, but rather we should think through all the implications of rising commodities prices.

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