How Will We Feed 9 Billion?

Image credit National Geographic, Photographer George Steinmetz

When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.

Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.

National Geographic’s special feature on Feeding 9 Billion is a good resource, especially for their graphics illustrating key aspects of the challenge. Of the agricultural inputs it is water, land use and energy that get most of my attention. Land and energy collide when you consider how you will substitute low-carbon energy sources for electricity, fertilizers, machinery for 9 billion. Study this graphic of Ice-Free Land, then ask yourself how you would solve these challenges?

To scope the problem a good place to learn the scale of what is required read Our High-Energy Planet, a report produced by The Breakthrough Institute:

“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”

If you are wondering if there will be any farmland left after fossil fuels are replaced with renewables, a good place to begin is by studying energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, and Energy Transitions.

On improving agriculture, these earlier posts should be helpful:

Lastly more Vaclav Smil, investigating the materials resources: Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, is a thoroughly reliable source on development economics and development policy options.

In a recent review of Roger Thurow’s new book, The Last Hunger Season, Paul Collier asks: “Why is Africa so dependent on imported food, despite being the least urbanized and most land-abundant continent?” Though the answer is simple, African agriculture is not sufficiently productive, the solutions are more complicated and controversial.

Though new seed technologies and commercialized agricultural practices are likely the best ways to produce more food and overcome hunger, Collier notes that these approaches don’t currently attract much support from African governments, NGOs, and development agencies. Among the concerns is that a switch from smallholder to commercial agriculture would lead to an influx of migrants to cities that are not prepared to accommodate them. But as Collier suggests, this transition looks inevitable.

This, to my mind, is the more fundamental long-term failing of African development: The children of smallholders should, and will, pour into cities. So it is vital that cities become engines of opportunity: That is what cities are for — high density is the handmaiden of economic activity. Millions of young people could be productively employed in Africa’s cities, so the key policy issue that governments and development agencies need to address is what has been impeding urban success — and it isn’t the low productivity of smallholders.

Collier does not get into detail about what is impeding urban success but governance is no doubt near the top of the list. Policy approaches to accommodating the influx of urban residents in cities in the developing world will have to account for the limited capacity of many governments to enforce the rules. This is a theme in Solly Angel’s new book, Planet of Cities. Angel’s approach to planning for urban expansion recognizes that urban growth is fastest in the parts of the world where governance is relatively weak. He envisions a public strong role in planning for urban expansion, but one that is narrow enough to have a reasonable chance of being executed by capacity constrained governments.

Source: Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization; NYU Stern Urbanization Project Brown Bag Discussion Series.

A Marriage of Two Agricultures & Vermont, the Stupid State

Jason Sibert interviews Raoul Adamchak co-author with geneticist Pamela Ronald of one of our favorite books Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Jason introduced the interview with the story of the Stupid State Vermont, the first US state silly enough to:
  • Shut down Vermont Yankee, the nuclear plant providing >70% of Vermont electrical generation.
  • Attempt to ban GMOs by mandating labeling.

Jason wrote:

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. “Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, ‘Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what’s in our food,’” Shumlin declared.

The framing of a consumer’s “right to know” has proved to be a powerful political instrument. Around the country, state legislatures are considering labeling GMOs, with the goal of many to ban them. At the same time, the environmental benefits of organic farming are touted as the better alternative, as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. But is the whole argument misguided? And do genetic engineering and organic farming both have something to teach us?

Please read Jason’s short interview which leads with this smart question: Can organic and biotech be considered converging technologies?

Yes. They both aim for an ecologically sound form of agriculture and both aim to reduce toxic inputs. For example, both organic farmers and farmers of pest resistant GE crops use a nontoxic insecticide called BT.

Organic farmers spray BT, whereas farmers that grow BT cotton don’t need to spray because the bacterial gene encoding is built into the crops genetic code. BT is a favorite tool of farmers because it does not harm mammals and is specific to pests and that is why organic farmers have used it for over 50 years.


Jennie Schmidt: The Costs of GMO Labeling


Jennie Schmidt is the proprietor of TheFoodieFarmer “Blogging about how your food gets from field to fork”. Jennie is very different from your typical Whole Foods customer, who has never set foot on a farm – she knows farming in depth. In particular she understands the supply chain – which is why she is especially qualified to write the captioned essay on what “right to know” really costs. This is the real deal, carefully researched, first-hand explanations of what is involved in establishing traceability of every ingredient that goes into food on your supermarket shelf. Read Jennie for the particulars. She closes with this summary:

Those who say GMO labeling won’t add to the consumer’s grocery bill need to go back to Economics 101 and some basic high school math.

True traceability in our food supply system will be hugely expensive.

Its likely that as a nation, we’d never capitalize all that infrastructure to achieve true traceability.

Which goes to the crux of the matter – this isn’t about labeling, as I cited in my last GMO blog, labeling is a means to an end. As noted by many activist groups, the ulterior motive behind labeling is not about a consumer’s right to know, it is about banning the technology.

Say NO to mandatory GMO labeling. Stand for science.

I liked Jennie’s essay so much that I posted the following comment:

Jennie – thanks heaps for taking the time to document some of the true costs that the “right to know” lobby wants to impose on consumers. I’m happy to see you already have a well-deserved pat on the back from Prof. Kevin Folta.

When we see such a “movement” promoting regulations that don’t make sense – that’s a good time to ask “who benefits?” If we follow the incentives we find there are a number of special-interests who are funding this campaign. David Tribe framed the smelly bedfellows as Big Quacka and Big Organic.

A concept from Public Choice economics that helps us understand how these hidden interests operate is called “Bootleggers and Baptists”. In your GMO labeling case the Bootleggers include Whole Foods and trial lawyers. Back in the CA Prop 37 fight I wrote a few posts on this concept, such as How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor and Scott Andes: Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated.

The key idea is that the Bootleggers have learned that the best media reception is obtained by fronting the Baptists, preferably worried-looking moms holding their beautiful babies.

The Bottom Line: if you want to know about food and farming – talk to farmers, not to Greenpeace.

Norman Borlaug: A Man For All Seasons

Norman Borlaug was a friend and mentor of molecular biologist Henry Miller, hence this moving salute to Borlaug's 100th:

In his professional life, Norman struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of critics and skeptics who predicted that in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. His work resulted not only in the construction of high-yielding varieties of wheat but also in new agronomic and management practices that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America to feed their populations.

How successful were Norman’s efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland — an extraordinary increase in yield per acre of more than 150 percent. India is an excellent case in point. In pre-Borlaug 1963, wheat grew there in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease. The maximum yield was 800 lb per acre. By 1968, thanks to Norman’s varieties, the wheat grew densely packed, was resistant to rust, and the maximum yield had risen to 6000 lb per acre.

Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of land under cultivation — with losses of pristine wilderness far greater than all the losses to urban, suburban and commercial expansion.

Norman recalled afterwards without rancor the maddening obstacles to the development and introduction of high-yield plant varieties: “bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers’ customs, habits, and superstitions.” About his experience in India (in the early 1960′s), he said:

When I asked about the need to modernize agriculture, both scientists and administrators typically replied, “Poverty is the farmers’ lot; they are used to it.”

I was informed that the farmers were proud of their lowly status, and was assured that they wanted no change. After my own experiences in Iowa and Mexico, I didn’t believe a word of it.

In Pakistan and Egypt, government research directors actually sabotaged trials of Norman’s seeds in order to discredit his work. As a result, people starved.


Please read Dr. Miller's essay – you'll be glad you did.


From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to offer recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a current and informed view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe).

Regarding urbanization: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am persuaded that the Charter Cities concept has a chance to evolve into an effective development tool, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!  

Bitter Harvest — How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution

Robert Zeigler, is head of IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), one of the key groups who are carrying forward Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution. Yes, the Golden Rice people. His essay for COSMOS makes me both sad and angry at the same time.

As an intellectual direct descendent of the architects of the Green Revolution, like Norman Borlaug (pictured above), it is truly heartbreaking to see their noble endeavors attacked by people claiming to defend the environment and the interests of the poor. From Norm Borlaug to Peter Jennings, all these greats had something in common: a fire in the belly to try and make a mockery of the doomsday predictions of Ehrlich and the Paddocks brothers. The role of science was precisely to make the future different from the past. Sadly, the strange brew of anti-corporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticized traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash.


Our understanding of genetics and the ability to proactively manipulate how plants behaved and responded to the environment was becoming a reality. Many of us saw this as a way to reverse the negatives of the Green Revolution and open the way for, in the words of Sir Gordon Conway, a “doubly green revolution.”

It was foreseeable that we could engineer into crops resistance to insect pests and pathogens that would eliminate the need for spraying toxic chemicals that sickened every organism they touched. Even better, we could now help the people left behind because they lived on lands plagued by droughts or floods that wouldn’t support modern crop varieties. I have seen this dream validated. India’s untouchable communities often farm on marginal flood-prone land. IRRI’s flood-tolerant rice is most useful to these farmers and promises to transform the lives of millions.

In short we saw modern biology as a driver for transforming agriculture into a tool for protecting the environment, meeting food needs, and reversing millennia of injustices that condemned certain segments of the population to the worst land.

Sadly, while we were working to make our dreams reality, the strange brew of anti-corporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticized traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash. The extreme regulations for GMO crops demanded by self-proclaimed protectors of the environment, had the perverse result that only the largest multinationals could afford to develop such crops. Predictably, this resulted in the same camp denouncing the growing domination of agriculture by multinationals.

As costs for developing crop varieties escalated, the few seed companies that could afford the work focused only on areas with large markets. The marginal farmers were once again excluded.

This time, though, who is to blame?

Please see also Norman Borlaug: “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa”. In the Easterbrook interview Borlaug said

“Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

A Thirst For Technology To Mitigate California’s Drought

Henry Miller looks at the clash between ideologies and the non-PC technologies that can contribute to solutions:

Reservoir levels are dropping, the snow pack is almost nonexistent, and many communities have already imposed restrictions on water usage. In the city of Santa Cruz, for example, restaurants can no longer serve drinking water unless diners specifically request it; Marin County residents have been asked not to clean their cars or to do so only at “eco-friendly” car washes; and there are limitations on watering lawns in towns in Mendocino County.

But it is the state’s premier industry– farming – that will feel the pinch most. In an average year, farmers use 80 percent of the water used by people and businesses, according to the Department of Water Resources.

During a January 19 press conference at which he declared a water emergency, Governor Jerry Brown said of the drought, “This is not a partisan adversary. This is Mother Nature. We have to get on nature’s side and not abuse the resources that we have.”

Drought may not be partisan, but it does raise critical issues of governance, public policy and how best to use the state’s natural resources. It also offers an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences: Ironically, Santa Cruz, Mendocino and Marin counties — all of which boast politically correct, far-left politics — are among the local jurisdictions that have banned a key technology that could conserve huge amounts of water.

The technology is genetic engineering performed with modern molecular techniques, sometimes referred to as genetic modification (GM) or gene-splicing, which enables plant breeders to make old crop plants do spectacular new things, including conserve water. In the United States and about 30 other countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment.


Vandana Shiva and the GMO Suicide Myth

“Every 30 minutes an Indian farmer commits suicide as a result of Monsanto’s GM crops. In the last decade more than 250,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves because of Monsanto’s costly seeds and pesticides.”

Shiva lies, lies, lies,...

Keith Kloor wrote a carefully-researched exposé of this zombie-myth. I say zombie-myth because it appears to be unkillable by evidence-based logic. The myth was manufactured from thin air by anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva, beginning with her 2009 op-ed in the Huffington Post.

I knew the suicide story was an activist fabrication. What I did not know was how successful Shiva has been at establishing the myth as received wisdom. Believers include Prince Charles, Bill Moyers and Stanford’s “Population Bomb” Paul Erlich, and of course  Greenpeace, which favors issues that aid their fund-raising.

It is the perfect story for uncritical media: emotional and truly tragic. If India is to reduce these tragedies they need to work on the real causes – not Shiva’s fiction. As you might expect, the explanation for the suicides is complex:

a 2012 paper in The Lancet that surveyed India’s suicide mortality rate noted: “Studies from south India have shown that the most common contributors to suicide are a combination of social problems, such as interpersonal and family problems and financial difficulties, and pre-existing mental illness.”

Researchers such as Cornell’s Ronald Herring are finding at least one factor that helps account for the increases in suicides from the early 1990’s. That is the unanticipated consequence of banking reforms which led to increasing penetration by “foreign and new generation private banks … [that has] led to fewer loans to agriculture and farmers. With increased competition, banks saw lending to the farm sector as unprofitable and unreliable”. In other words, where institutional credit became unavailable to small-holder farmers, the void was filled by money-lenders.  This helps explain why suicides have been concentrated in five of India’s 28 states:

Banking practices vary across India … states with the highest incidence of farmer suicides were those that offered the least institutional credit to farmers. This forced small farmers into the hands of private lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates (as high as 45%). In those states where farmers had better access to institutional credit and farm insurance, there were markedly fewer suicides. Indian banks also offer credit to farmers with irrigated land, as this makes farming more viable. “Irrigation does drive bank lending,” Sadanadan said at the panel. “In states where there is greater irrigation, they [banks] lend money to the farmer.”

Central to Shiva’s myth is the claim that farmer suicides are caused by the complete failure of “Monsanto’s seeds”. But Shiva is never bothered by evidence that contradicts her preferred narrative:

Bt cotton has been all the rage in India since it was officially approved in 2002. The technology has been adopted by over 90% of Indian cotton farmers. Multiple studies point to significant reduction in pesticide spraying and subsequent cost savings for cotton farmers. (Similar findings attest to the same in China, where Bt cotton accounts for 80% of its crop.) India’s agricultural minister said in 2012 that the country “has harvested an average of 5.1 million tons of cotton per year, which is well above the highest production of 3 million tons before the introduction of Bt cotton. ” India is the world’s second-biggest cotton producer, behind China. Apparently, Indian farmers have come to overwhelmingly embrace genetically modified cotton.

Yet there is an enduring belief that Bt cotton has failed in India, with tragic consequences. This failure, the story goes, has resulted in burdensome debt and caused more than a quarter-million Indian farmers to take their own lives. Ronald Herring, a political scientist at Cornell University, has studied the seeming paradox and written on it extensively. As he observed in one paper, “It is hard to imagine farmers spreading a technology that is literally killing them”.

…when India approved Bt cotton (thus far the only GMO crop permitted in the country), it quickly became a surrogate cause in the larger ideological battle. In this battle, the Bt cotton-Indian farmer suicide narrative that Shiva helped to craft proved to be powerfully seductive and immune to contradiction or correction. Not only does there seem to be no evidence that farmers using Bt cotton seed are more likely to commit suicide than others, but farmers that do use the seeds appear on the whole to be benefiting from them. A 2008 meta-review of data between 2002 and 2006 “suggests that Bt cotton has been quite successful in most states and years in India, contributing to an impressive leap in average cotton yields, as well as a decrease in pesticide use and  in farmer revenue. ” The authors of this paper, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, say that their analysis “is sufficiently well documented to discredit the possibility of a naïve direct causal or reciprocal relationship between Bt cotton and farmer suicides. ”

These conclusions have since been corroborated by additional studies that found that Indian farmers using Bt crops spend less money on pesticides and earn more money from higher yields. In fact, a 2013 study in PLOS ONE found that in India “the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased family incomes. ”

In 2013, after attending Shiva’s talk at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I asked her about the mounting evidence that contradicted her “suicide seed” claims. She dismissed them breezily and said, “Those are the Monsanto studies. ” But neither Monsanto nor the biotechnology industry funded any of the aforementioned studies. Never mind; that same week, she went on a news program in the United States and said: “Two hundred and seventy thousand Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. That’s more than a quarter million. It’s a genocide. ”

Keith Kloor’s article puts a bright spotlight on what Shiva is doing.  It is obvious that Vandana Shiva will only stop this sham when it becomes unprofitable. So please help make it unprofitable for her to continue — direct your friends to the true history behind this destructive myth.

Environmentalists’ double standards

…So why has the environmental movement – which professes a deep attachment to science in other areas – refused to acknowledge that the world has moved on from the “Frankenfoods” scare?

….Another reason is the vested interests that have now emerged against GMOs. It is no accident that the millions of dollars of funding for pro-labelling campaigns in California and Washington State came from big organic foods interests and “natural health” internet sales quacks.

It is unlikely, therefore, that this opposition can be addressed with science or indeed rational debate at all. It is a values-level political denialist movement motivated by an implacable opposition to the acquisition and use of human knowledge in an important area of biology.

From a brief Cosmos essay by Mark Lynas. Read the whole thing