More Paul Ehrlich Revisionism

Stanford University's Bing Professor of Population Studies Paul Ehrlich is trying once again to salvage what remains of his sorry reputation as environmentalist prophet of doom. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a pretty good op/ed this past Sunday critiquing the exaggerated alarmism of ideological environmentalists. Kristof pointed out that Ehrlich's 1968 prediction in The Population Bomb that "hundreds of millions of people are going to starve" was way off.

In today's Times, Ehrlich replies with a letter to the editor, in which he claims:

"Since "The Population Bomb" was written in 1968, conservatively 200 million people have starved to death. As the Food and Agriculture Organization's 2004 annual hunger report pointed out, hunger and malnutrition kill more than five million children every year."

Sadly the figures Ehrlich cites are all too true, but they are MUCH BETTER than what he was actually predicting would occur--a fact which he still refuses to acknowledge. So let's take another walk down memory lane:

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s (emphasis mine), the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." -- The Population Bomb

Ehrlich escalated his dire predictions several times in the early 1970s in the face of the success of the "Green Revolution." To wit:

"Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born," wrote Ehrlich in an essay titled "Eco-Catastrophe!," which ran in the special Earth Day issue of the radical magazine Ramparts. "By...[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s."

Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the "Great Die-Off."

Unfortunately, great foundations like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, begin to listen to Ehrlich's population control message and they diverted resources from their highly successful agricultural research programs and put them instead into largely fruitless efforts at direct (and often coercive) population control programs. It turns out that boosting food production through agricultural research is probably the best way to reduce population growth rates. The countries where food security is highest are precisely the countries where one finds below replacement fertility rates. Not only was Ehrlich wrong, his false predictions may have made the world a worse place.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    "It turns out that boosting food production through agricultural research is probably the best way to reduce population growth rates. The countries where food security is highest are precisely the countries where one finds below replacement fertility rates."

    The countries where car ownership, internet access, and per capita spending on stilletto heels are the highest are precisely the countries where one finds below replacement fertility rates as well. I don't think America, Canada, Germany, Italy, England, etc. have low population growth because of new strains of corn. Rather, they are all extremely wealthy, and their low birth rates are a consequence of that wealth.

    There is no longer a lack of food in world that accounts for povery and hunger. As Zimbabwe demonstrates, malnutrition is almost always the consequence of social and political conditions, not a lack of agriculatural capacity. If the white-owned farms in Zimbabwe had been growing really great whiz-bang varieties of soy beans, it would have made no difference to the nation's hunger rates one Mugabe started stealing them.

    Eliminating hunger in the world has nothing to do with new crop varieties.

  • ||

    joe,

    Of course, you're right about the mess in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole. But, wealth creation begins with food security--as it has increased throughout Asia, fertility rates have plummeted.

    And I think you're wrong about the need for new crop varieties--the easier it is for subsistence farmers to grow food (say by means of pest resistant and disease resistant new varieties) the more likely they are going to be able to send their kids to school and so forth. Surveys showed that the farmers in India and Pakistan that were first adopters of Green Revolution varieties (which initially doubled food production) were also the first to send their kids to school, buy tractors, water pumps, install bathrooms, and so forth. Besides the world needs to boost agricultural productivity by means of new varieties so that we don't have to plow down more of the wild world in order to feed the 2.5 billion more people who are likely to join us before world population peaks in the middle of this century.

  • ||

    Eliminating hunger in the world has nothing to do with new crop varieties.

    So what do we do? Stop growing non-native wheats in India?

  • ||

    Ron, I agree that "wealth creation begins with food security." Similarly, paving a highway begins with a few inches of gravel. Yet once the depth of gravel you need is laid, it doesn't do you any good to add a few more inches. In fact, if you're adding unnecessary gravel where you should be putting down a base coat of asphalt, you're going to end up with a screwed up highway.

    The innovations in agricultural production over the course of the 20th century put the world, at long last, over the hump in its food production. Where there used to be a global shortage, and the only question was how to divide the scarcity, now there is a global surplus. After a certain point, investments in increasing that surplus pays diminishing returns, and can even come back to hurt the most vulnerable people - subsistence farmers in pre-industrial nations - by lowering the value of their only marketable commodity.

    "the easier it is for subsistence farmers to grow food (say by means of pest resistant and disease resistant new varieties) the more likely they are going to be able to send their kids to school and so forth." Again, only up to a point. If a country's farmers are already producing enough crops to fill that country's internal markets, as well as the demand for exported crops, further boosting agriculatural yields won't generate any addition wealth. What they very well could do, however, is require each of the farmers to make higher capital investments just to keep taking in the same amount of money, as each farmer has to buy the expensive Monsanto seeds to produce enough additional volume to make up for the falling price. If the outcome of this dynamic was to meet a shortage, as it was for most of the 20th century, then it would be a gain for the farmers. But since it is not, since that hurdle has already been cleared and then some, all further efficiencies do, from an economic standpoint, is to turn argicultural production into a mature industry, with the predictable consequences to small producers.

  • ||

    Voiceover,

    I'm not calling for reversing anything. The Green Revolution worked. My argument is that additional progress in the same direction - increasing crop yields per acre - is unlikely to make a serious dent in povery and hunger. As opposed to 50 years ago, where poverty and hunger exist today, they are not the consequence of inadequate agricultural capacity.

    If the Ford Foundation has $100 million to alleviate poverty, it would be a waste to spend it on replacing Green Revolution-era technologies with Super Duper Green Revolution technologies, when there are problems that haven't yet been solved, like inadequate resources for rural schools or poor medical care, to put those resources into instead.

  • ||

    But since it is not, since that hurdle has already been cleared and then some, all further efficiencies do, from an economic standpoint, is to turn argicultural production into a mature industry, with the predictable consequences to small producers.

    Joe, you are overlooking something. Cheaper food is good for all but the farmer who doesn't know when to quit. More third-worlders are working in manufacturing and will prosper with cheaper food. You seem to be attached to the idea that humans are incapable of adapting to changes. You are wrong. Farmers can change jobs and make more money. It happens every day.

  • ||

    joe,
    Ron is 100% right. Your highway analogy fails because more gavel doesn't do squat past a certain point to make a road better, making food cheaper does. The desire to do more, either in work or fight for freedom is proportional to the price of bread. As food and shelter move from 90% of my income to 50%, there is more money and free time to buy shiny new things or agitate for elections.

    You are right that distribution of food is now a bigger issue than total production.

  • ||

    But we argue on a tangent here. Yes, food is plentiful. Yes, governments still manage to interrupt the supply of food to the starving.

    But the main thrust of the article is that Paul Erlich made his name using scare tactics that have since been proven false. Yet he still has stature. Why do we still have Paul Erlich Boulevards, and why are we not renaming them after Julian Simon?

  • fyodor||

    If a country's farmers are already producing enough crops to fill that country's internal markets, as well as the demand for exported crops, further boosting agriculatural yields won't generate any addition wealth.

    Static model. I doubt markets can ever be truly maxed out like that. And if I'm wrong, well if one crop becomes easier to grow thanks to new strains, farmers can grow it on less land and start growing other crops that haven't yet maxed out the market. Increased ease of production always will give greater options to the producer that a smart informed player can exploit.

    Anyway, what's to do about it all? Since Ron's example involves charitable research as opposed to investment by profit seeking business, it may very well be possible to target such money to research to new strains that are more likely to help poor farmers than Monsanto. As long as we don't restrict Monsanto from investing in whatever new strains they like, I have no problem with charities targetting their research to where it'll more likely help poor folks.

  • ||

    It is amazing that Ehrlich is still taken seriously and invited to speak on campuses around the county. In any other field of "science" someone who has been not only wrong but spectacularly wrong time after time would have either had the humility to quietly bow out of the field by taking a non-conspicuous position somewhere and been long forgotten, or they would have been thoroughly discredited by their peers. Instead this guy keeps writing the same apocalyptic tripe and is highly respected!? This is a sure sign of how intellectually bankrupt the eco-disaster movement (i.e. purely political agenda) is. What matters to them is not the accuracy of the science but the sensationalism of the claim.

    It's interesting the parallels between those espousing this agenda and the religious right's creationist / intelligent design movement. Neither side cares much for real science or facts and both are interested in using the guise of science to further their cherished beliefs, held with no less a religious zeal in the case of the eco-disaster movement.

  • ||

    As an eighteen year old college freshman in 1973 I was required to take a course titled Environment and Man. It was nothing but gloom and doom and most of us were more than willing to uncritically accept it.

    Ever since then I have wondered what happened to the doomsters of yore. There seemed to be three very famous ones and they had an equally whacked out right wing antagonist. Does anyone remember who those four were orbeeter yet a link to articles or sites about them?

  • ||

    orbeeter = or better

    sorry

  • ||

    I don't know anyone who takes Ehrlich seriously. I read Population Bomb about twenty years ago and had a good laugh. I think of that book's inaccuracy whenever I encounter the doomsday global climate change literature. They are eerily similar.

  • ||

    I was listening to the author of The Limits to Growth (Dennis L. Meadows) on NHPR yesterday (he has a relatively new book out titled Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update). Anyway, Meadows towards the close of the interview stated that by 2012 you'd see that he and his co-authors were right. The problem is that their predictive abilities rival such luminaries as Hal Lindsey. :)

  • ||

    joe,

    There is no longer a lack of food in world that accounts for povery and hunger.

    As a rule, poverty and hunger are and have always been human-caused.

  • ||

    joe,

    Prof. Amartya Sen (Nobel Prize winner in Economics) made the point in a number of articles on the famine in Ehtiopia in the 1970s that the draught, etc. were the not primary causes of the famine, but the failure of the human social, etc. regimes to cope with it.

  • ||

    I half agree with joe.

    It is certainly true that the quantity of food available in third world countries is (perhaps with a few exceptions) more than sufficient to feed their populations. Most famine is due to the failure of institutions, frequently as a result of over-reliance on regulation and centralized planning. So I would certainly agree that efforts to alleviate hunger should put considerable emphasis on human factors. The Economist frequently has articles on how third world farmers benefit from better access to markets (in their countries as well as abroad) and access to cell phones (so they can find the best price without having to travel long distances). Of course, before anybody accuses me of calling for cell phone subsidies in the third world, The Economist has also observed that the greatest use of cell phones has occured in third world countries with more liberal business environments for telecommunications firms.

    However, there is a third factor in addition to the quantity of food produced and the infrastructure and institutions for distributing it. That factor is the cost of food. And if the latest innovations in biotech can drive down the cost of food even further than the Green Revolution did, well, that's a good thing. It's good for consumers of food, and it's good for the most efficient producers who remain in the market after the new technology is widely implemented. The only people who will lose will be those farmers who are too inefficient to thrive but too stubborn to quit.

  • ||

    The only people who will lose will be those farmers who are too inefficient to thrive but too stubborn to quit.

    Just wait until Willie and Mellencamp sing a few songs for the losers.

  • ||

    Maybe someone can help me with the accounting...
    Since the dictators/governments botched food distribution, and these same corrupt organizations devoted resources to profit from drug trade and mineral extraction, how do we apportion the 200 million between "drug-related deaths" and "environmental poisoning"?

    Erlich's mistake was putting the blame on problems people can actually solve. A better alarmist wouldn't use such easily measurable endpoints as "deaths". More alarming would be something vague, like the number of people "suffering".

  • ||

    "I don't know anyone who takes Ehrlich seriously."

    Somebody on this campus does since he just spoke to a large audience here last spring. And I would assume we're not the only campus to invite him.

  • ||

    "Erlich's mistake was putting the blame on problems people can actually solve."

    No, his mistake was creating fictional problems that didn't exist (i.e. the coming disater du jour).

  • ||

    thoreau,

    Yes, that's just another variant of "institutions" though.

  • ||

    Gary,

    Ethiopia circa 1980 is a post-Green Revolution example, one that bolsters my point. As for hunger always being human-caused, social and political causes have always played a role in hunger, but so did a simple lack of agricultural capacity and inadequate transportation and preservation technology. Today, we have overcome the latter causes, and the former is the only target left. That's what makes investments in increasing agricultural yield, rather than in improving social and political and economic conditions, a bad deal.

  • ||

    Erlich is an idiot for sure, but i think his ideas (circa 1968) come about from the politics of that time. It was the middle of the Cold War and the Sovs with their stupid agri. systems couldn't feed themselves or their client states. That was a huge part of the world famine problem. One of the most fertile regions of the world was being poorly used.

  • ||

    Twba,

    "Cheaper food is good for all but the farmer who doesn't know when to quit. More third-worlders are working in manufacturing and will prosper with cheaper food. You seem to be attached to the idea that humans are incapable of adapting to changes. You are wrong. Farmers can change jobs and make more money. It happens every day."

    Then why do libertarians claim that American agricultural subsidies harm African economies by undercutting local farmers? Can't the same reasoning be used to claim that the local producers can simplty adapt to changes, change jobs, and prosper as they pay less for food? Reason, much to its credit, consistently and loudly points out the harm done to small farmers as American subsidies designed to flood their countries markets with food reduce their incomes. In fact, it is often claimed that removing these subsidies would have the effect of dramatically improving those counties' economies.

    So which is it - is it good for Americans (the government, the Ford Foundation, whomever) to invest in creating a price-lowering superabundance of food in the developing world, or is it harmful to those countries? Don't bother going into the difference between tax-funding and charity - the source of the funding wouldn't make a difference in how said superabundance would effect the developing world.

  • ||

    Since I personally know folks who subscribe to Ehrlich's worldview, I spent some time trying to understand it.

    Since I have no training or skills as a social scientist, I am forced to apply my engineer's linear thinking. Anyone can contradict me as they see fit.

    As near as I can tell people like Ehrlich and, say, John Kenneth Galbraith (also renowned for being spectacularly wrong) appeal to people on the left (and thereby retain undeserved reputations) for the same reason as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson appeal to those on the right.

    And basically that reason is they tell there listeners what they want to hear (and that is what they already believe).

    Of course lefties get to feel even more superior about it because their core prejudices are being confirmed by tenured professors from America's two premier universities.

    What I don't understand is why the human haters on both sides of this divide believe as they do.

  • ||

    Some of these comments are economic nonsense. Only some kind of neo-Luddite would eschew readily achievable technological progress resulting in increased productivity for the worlds poor in favor or simply dumping more money into "social political and economic conditions." How exactly do you improve any of those things in a lasting way if you turn away from the potential to create more food with fewer resources? This is how progress happens. With less land, people, hours, etc. required to produce food there is more land, people, hours, etc. to do other productive things. Don't get me wrong, I certainly agree that the main cause of poverty is political (as an aside let me again link Ronald Bailey's Reason article on this point Poor Planning: How to achieve the miracle of poverty - for those that haven't read it, it is not to be missed), but that is beside the point when it comes to technological advances. In fact it argues against putting money into "political" conditions since we've seen where that money goes: to the pockets of those responsible for the poverty in the first place.

  • ||

    joe-

    My understanding of the situation with US farm subsidies and third world farmers is that the real problem is limiting access to the US market. We protect out farmers from foreign competition, limiting the ability of third world farmers to earn money by selling to the US. I had not heard the argument that we're flooding third world countries with artificially cheap agriculture.

    I wouldn't be shocked if for some particular agricultural product we're actually dumping it on third world markets, but my understanding of the overall situation is that the real problem is protectionism in our domestic market, not dumping on foreign markets.

    Also, cheap abundance in the third world is not a problem if they can compensate for low prices by selling their surplus abroad. If they have a comparative advantage in agriculture then it makes sense to stay in agriculture even when they produce more food than they can consume domestically. If, on the other hand, they don't have a comparative advantage in farming, then it will be easier to develop new industries if food is cheap. A new sector can only thrive if it makes enough money for its workers to live on, and that threshold for self-sufficiency is lower if food is cheaper.

  • ||

    Issac: "And basically that reason is they tell there listeners what they want to hear (and that is what they already believe)."

    Exactly!

  • ||

    thoreau, I think you're right about limiting markets, rather than dumping, being the major anti-developing world problem with our ag subsidies.

    Brian Courts, good job ignoring the issue of diminishing returns, and the possibility of charitable investments that don't get deposited in the Prime Minister's bank account.

  • ||

    Then why do libertarians claim that American agricultural subsidies harm African economies by undercutting local farmers? Can't the same reasoning be used to claim that the local producers can simplty adapt to changes, change jobs, and prosper as they pay less for food?

    Subsidies waste resources on expensive foods by forcing people to pay for them, while lowering the price of production makes more efficient use of those resources possible. That's better, especially for the people able to use the resources more efficiently. But hey, if you don't believe me, go smash your window so that repairing it improves the economy.

  • ||

    "And basically that reason is they tell there listeners what they want to hear (and that is what they already believe)."

    Isn't this why most talking-head-type people are famous? It surely isn't because they tell the truth regardless of what the audience wants to hear.

  • ||

    The Real Bill at March 15, 2005 02:55 PM

    Good point.

    I agree.

  • Kevin Carson||

    I wonder if the productivity of "subsistence farmers" isn't a red herring. The new crop varieties are likely to be introduced by international agribusiness companies--on land originally stolen from subsistence farmers.

    And Brian, if the "technical progress" is "readily achievable" only with government patent monopolies and restrictions on labelling of GMO products, then only a statist would support them.

    The most important way to remedy "social and economic conditions" is not more government spending--it's less government collusion with the agribusiness TNCs, landlords, and latifundia, and an end to the modern-day reenactment of enclosures and abrogation of traditional land rights.

    Twba,

    The question is whether the "change" that farmers "adapt" to is imposed from above, or consensual. English peasants "adapted" to "change" when customary land rights were abrogated by Parliament, and the commons were enclosed. Their only alternatives were to be driven like beasts into the factories and accept work on whatever terms it was offered, or die. People are great at adapting when they're robbed. That doesn't make it right.

  • ||

    Of course the point of Erlich's moronic claim was that the "Green Revolution" would be a flop, when it clearly hasn't been.

  • ||

    Eric .5b,

    "Subsidies waste resources on expensive foods by forcing people to pay for them, while lowering the price of production makes more efficient use of those resources possible."

    Except that we're talking about AMERICANS paying for the subsidies that lower food prices for non-Americans.

  • ||

    Except that we're talking about AMERICANS paying for the subsidies that lower food prices for non-Americans.

    Except most of those subsidies go to domestic sales. I don't think the poor African producers you're talking about are having much trouble competing with imported American vegetables.

  • ||

    "What I don't understand is why the human haters on both sides of this divide believe as they do."

    Issac - I've been linear-thinking my ass off on that one for years. It's the hate more than the foolish of their opinions or faulty analysis that bothers me most.

  • ||

    American vegetables aren't subsidized. They aren't exported much, either. Grain, on the other hand...

  • ||

    Of course the Patron Saint of this creed is Thomas Malthus.

    "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second."

    His An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) is treated by the religious left the same way the first chapter of The Book of Genesis is treated by the religious right.

  • ||

    joe,

    Actually, vegetable growers do get subsidies. Its just not a direct subsidy. The government - like the French government - pays for "land conservation" measures for vegetable and fruit growers. This is part of the Conservation Reserve Program and its been place since the 1980s. A lot of the money that is spent is meant to keep the land "picturesque."

  • ||

    Thoreau,

    Joe started off with a decent point and wandered off into crowing that he'd caught someone in some contradiction in his own mind. Stupid libertarian rhetorical tricks aside (yeah, YOU, Gunnels), I don't think anyone's being unfair to him.

  • ||

    joe,

    Note also that a Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) provision was passed with the 2002 Farm Bill. Now, as I understand it, its implementation has been delayed, but if it does actually come into being, well, you see what I mean.

    As to the export issue, as I recall, in the late 1990s ~20% of America's agricultural exports were fruits and vegetables.

  • Ron Bailey||

    It may too late to weigh in with a few observations but here goes:

    (1) Our subsidies do keep out lower cost ag products from poor countries, just ask the sugar and cotton lobbies.

    (2) The Green Revolution never really made it to much of Africa. Need things like good ports, roads, fertilizer and pesticide factories, yet African governments allowed what they had to crumble. For example, subSaharan Africa has fewer miles of paved road than it did 25 years ago.

    (3) Many African countries also forced farmers to sell their crops to government marketing boards that set prices so that the governments could sell them to city dwellers at low prices. You can imagine what an incentive this was for farmers to adopt new and better farming techniques.

    (3) Biotech crops can be part of a workaround for corrupt governments--the technology is built into the seed (pest and disease resistance) which means that some infrastructure problems can be gotten around.

    (4) One can think of farming as the first step up the development ladder--once it gets above subsistence and the farmers join the money economy, they can begin to demand other products--kerosene, electrcity, water supplies, tractors, trucks and so forth--swelling demand in this way jumpstarts small businesses and factories to supply these needs and the virtuous circle continues to expand.

  • ||

    Ron Bailey,

    The Green Revolution never really made it to much of Africa.

    Many African countries also forced farmers to sell their crops to government marketing boards that set prices so that the governments could sell them to city dwellers at low prices. You can imagine what an incentive this was for farmers to adopt new and better farming techniques.

    That's the chicken and egg issue in a nutshell I think.

    Biotech crops can be part of a workaround for corrupt governments--the technology is built into the seed (pest and disease resistance) which means that some infrastructure problems can be gotten around.

    Also, greater production can allow a farmer to pay off the rapacious government, feed his family and sell some on the open market (or black market).

  • ||

    thoreau: "I don't think joe's a Luddite of any sort. I think he's asking a legitimate question about marginal benefits. Without a doubt new biotech will produce marginal benefits. Without a doubt improved institutions will also produce marginal benefits. The question is which use of aid money will produce greater marginal benefits on a per-dollar basis."

    Ok, I don't really think he is either, I was taking a few rhetorical liberties I suppose, but to the extent that it's simply about marginal benefits, I would agree, we don't know, a priori, which one would be better pursued at the margin in a perfect world. But at the end of that post, and I didn't make it very clear, I was trying to say that investment in institutions sounds nice but what does it mean? How do we do that? The typical approach seems to be to send foreign aid which ultimately enriches the very regime responsible for the poverty.

    Also, I was taking issue with his "good enough" arugment about the current state of food production.

  • ||

    Brian-

    I share your skepticism about our ability to transform institutions with foreign aid money. Hell, I'm even skeptical about our ability to build healthy new institutions by force of arms. But that's another topic.

    Still, even though I don't necessarily share all of joe's views on this matter, I think his questions are reasonable.

  • ||

    thoreau/Cathy Young,

    I see.

  • R C Dean||

    Geez, thoreau, what is it with you and being reasonable? Anyone would think you are here to learn and persuade. Don't you understand that blog comments are all about the cheap shot and ego gratification?

  • ||

    R.C. Dean,

    Geez, I thought we were here to tell you when you are wrong; like when you claimed that Switzerland was part of the E.U.? :)

  • ||

    And what's wrong with cheap shots and ego gratification? Hey if i wanted to persuade I would have gone into politics.... oh wait, that's about cheap shots and ego gratification too. Ok I would have become a lawyer... oh never mind.

  • ||

    Let's see if I have this straight.

    1. The US gives money to farmers.
    2. The US gives food stamps to the poor.
    3. The US gives foreign aid to foreigners.
    4. The US prevents foreigners from selling Americans cheap food.

    Would it not cost everyone less to reduce 1, 2 and 3 by eliminating 4?

    Sorry, I was being naive. If we let the foreigners support themselves by selling us cheap food ...

    Agricultural interest would be mad at Congress.

    People couldn't feel good about helping the poor and farmers.

    People wouldn't feel protected from foreigners.

    Internationalist couldn't feel good about helping foreigners.

    Free Minds and Free Labor

    SP

  • ||

    "The Chinese and Indians appear to appreciate the fact that stagnating production in agriculture will mean a lot of dead people."

    False dichotomy, GG. There are considerable gains to be made just through the wider dissemination of existing ag technology, and in many countries, the provision of adequate supportive infrastructure, as mentioned above.

    I did not realize that vegetables had such an export market. Tiny compared to grains, but still.

  • ||

    Anyway, I think we can all agree that Paul Erhlich is a fool and his predictions of cuture catastrophe are hogwash.

  • ||

    Joe, I'm sorry I didn't respond earlier and hope I'm not wasting my time by answering your questions now.

    Then why do libertarians claim that American agricultural subsidies harm African economies by undercutting local farmers?

    The American ag subsidies provide an incentive to American farmers to continue overproducing row crops. The resulting glut drives down prices on those commodities causing African farmers to receive less money when selling the same commodities.

    Can't the same reasoning be used to claim that the local producers can simplty adapt to changes, change jobs, and prosper as they pay less for food?

    Yes. In a freer country, a man can give up farming and come out ahead. For the African farmers to have a chance, changes need to happen. Private property must be protected not stolen by the government. Investments in industry must be protected. The products of industry and agriculture must be allowed to be traded freely. The US government must eliminate barriers to trade of African products.

    Reason, much to its credit, consistently and loudly points out the harm done to small farmers as American subsidies designed to flood their countries markets with food reduce their incomes.

    You are misunderstanding the purpose of American ag subsidies. They are not designed to flood foreign markets with cheap food. They are solely intended to enrich American farmers and related businesses at your expense.

    In fact, it is often claimed that removing these subsidies would have the effect of dramatically improving those counties' economies.

    It would be a good first step. Trade barriers are also causing much harm and can be eliminated easily. Elimination of African kleptocracies is also necessary.

    So which is it - is it good for Americans (the government, the Ford Foundation, whomever) to invest in creating a price-lowering superabundance of food in the developing world, or is it harmful to those countries?

    It is good. Genetic modification of plants is good. African farmers need more crops modified to thrive in their fields. African consumers need cheaper food.

    Don't bother going into the difference between tax-funding and charity - the source of the funding wouldn't make a difference in how said superabundance would effect the developing world.

    Taxpayers and charities can contribute to progress, but a competitive market for private industry produced GM seed will also contribute to economic progress in Africa. Paul Ehrlich will contribute nothing but counterproductive ideas.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement