Thursday, May 19, 2011

Can We Survive a World with 9 billion people?

Prolific author Matt Ridley says yes (bold emphasis mine)...

We trebled yields in the last 60 years without taking extra land under the plough. If we did that again – by getting fertilizer to farmers in Africa and central Asia, by cutting losses to pests and droughts through ever more subtle genetic manipulation, by improving roads and encouraging trade – then we could feed nine billion better than we feed seven billion today. And still retire huge swathes of land from farming to rainforest and other forms of wilderness.

The two most effective policies for frustrating this uplifting ambition are: organic agriculture and renewable bio-energy. Organic farming means growing your nitrogen fertilizer rather than fixing it from the air. That requires more land, either grazed by cattle or planted with legumes. The quickest way to destroy what wilderness we have left is to go organic. Bio-energy (growing crops to make fuel or electricity) takes food out of the mouths of the poor. In 2010, the world diverted 5% of its grain crops into making fuel, displacing just 0.6% of oil use yet killing an estimated 192,000 people by tipping them into malnutrition through higher food prices. We should stop such madness now.

...provided environmental politics would not lead to vicious government meddling which would subvert earlier victories with deleterious policies that would function as the proverbial cure which is worse than the disease.

He writes about how Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich, who wrongly forecasted for a worldwide cataclysmic famine, had mainly been foiled by creative persistency of the father of Green Revolution Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, one of the genuine unsung heroes of the world (my earlier post here).

He also writes about how technology has substantially increased farming efficiency which has led to a massive reduction in land usage for agriculture. (bold emphasis mine)...

We currently feed nearly seven billion people by farming about 38% of the land surface of the planet. If we wanted to feed that many people by using the techniques, varieties and – mostly organic – fertilizers of the 1950s, we would need to cultivate roughly 84% of the land surface. There goes the rain forest, the national parks, the wetlands. The intensification of agriculture has saved wilderness.

...and also how famine prevention defused the population time bomb.

Read Mr. Ridley’s fantastic article here

Bottomline: Mr. Ridley bets on human ingenuity (and not on econometric models) brought upon mostly by free trade. And so do I.

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