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APRIL 2009



World Food Crisis (Part II: The Bad News -- and the Case of Africa)

Thomas R. DeGregori,
American Council on Science and Health, Health Facts and Fears,
August 26, 2008

In spite of the unimaginable global transformations described in my blog post yesterday, per capita food production and consumption in many parts of Africa has actually declined. Unless there is a massive infusion of aid (from the Gates Foundation and others) for seeds, fertilizer, and infrastructure, the situation could get worse, since in many regions of Africa, farmers are taking more nutrients out of the soil than they are returning. They are mining the soil and destroying its structure.

This is "organic agriculture" as practiced by the poor who can not afford synthetic fertilizer, improved seeds and pesticides.

It is sustainable in the sense described by C.S. Prakash: "Organic farming is sustainable. It sustains poverty and malnutrition."

However much better conditions are today than in decades past, 9.7 million children are dying each year, most of them from preventable diseases, and that is unacceptable. Having 860 million people in poverty and hunger is equally unacceptable. To reduce or eliminate hunger; provide more diverse diets of meat, milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables, etc.; and accommodate an expected population of around 9 billion in 2040 (after which population should level off if not decline), it will be necessary to about double the 2000 level of food production -- a task comparable to the 1960-2000 growth in food production.

Challenges to Increasing Food Production
Grains provide about two thirds of the daily caloric needs of the world's population. Land under cultivation to grain peaked around 1980 and has declined since then, while total land for all forms of cultivation has remained relatively constant since the mid-1990s. Once again, increases in yields will have to be the driving force of this growth. This is going to be difficult for the following reasons: <cut> 

4) The greatest promise for improved food and agriculture production can be found in transgenic technology using rDNA. Unfortunately, a systematic global anti-science, anti-technology campaign of misinformation by groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth has successfully frightened European and other consumers and thereby has greatly complicated the potential advances using rDNA transgenics (GMOs) and delayed the introduction of vitamin A-enhanced rice. In peer-reviewed articles in leading publications in India and elsewhere, it is estimated that if every other rice meal children in India was vitamin A-enhanced, it would save 40,000 of the 70,000 children's lives lost each year in India because of vitamin A deficiency. The NGO-led regulatory delays in India of about six years will result in 240,000 children losing their lives.

Per one report: "According to our calculations, the current annual disease burden of [vitamin A deficiency (VAD)] in India amounts to a loss of 2.3 million DALYs [disability-adjusted life years], of which 2.0 million are lost due to child mortality alone. In terms of incidence numbers, >70,000 Indian children under the age of six die each year due to VAD. In this context, widespread consumption of Golden Rice 2 with a high beta-carotene content could reduce the burden of VAD by 59%, whereas under pessimistic assumptions the burden would be reduced by 9%. In both scenarios, thousands of lives could be saved. As the severity of VAD is negatively correlated with income, the positive effects of Golden Rice 2 are most pronounced in the lowest income groups." (Stein, Alexander J; H.P.S. Sachdev and Matin Qaim. Potential impact and cost-effectiveness of Golden Rice, Nature Biotechnology 24,1200-1201,2006)

The Luddites have made the introduction of transgenic food crops more difficult -- yet they then use the lack of more production of transgenic food crops as an argument against them. Thus far, we have not held the activists accountable for the huge cost in human life that is the result of their anti-science, anti-technology campaigns. Let me state categorically that there is no controversy in science over the legitimacy of biotechnology, just as there is no controversy in science over whether evolution is a fact of life on earth.

5) The idiotic antics of the anti-GMO NGOs were turning me less optimistic, but I had been convinced by the steady growth in transgenic agriculture in maize, soybeans, and cotton in both developed and developing countries that we would eventually win on this issue (even with the needless delay resulting in a significant cost in human life). I have been further heartened by the outstanding work being done in China, India, and elsewhere on a variety of other transgenic crops. But the current mania for turning food crops into fuel crops (other than for fuel for the human body) has finally turned me pessimistic for the first time in my adult life.

In principle, I am not against forms of alternative energy including biofuels. Instead of subsidizing ethanol and other biofuels from food crops, governments ought to be funding research into producing fuel from algae, switch grass or other grasses, or plants like jatroba, which offer the possibility of producing fuel economically and reducing greenhouse gas emissions without adversely affecting food production. The need for rapid advances in controlling greenhouse gas emissions requires a vastly better understanding of both the costs and benefits of alternative biofuel sources.

The anti-transgenic crusades made me concerned as to whether we could continue the progress of the last decades, and the food-to-fuel mania has me now worried that we may in fact even reverse that progress. Previously, we could discuss the future of food production in terms of what was done in the past, seeking to continue and improve upon what was done right, correct what was done wrong, and find new ways of making things even better. Now we have to be concerned about keeping things from getting worse. <cut>

Over the long term it is highly likely that there will be increased investment for expanding commodity production in minerals. There would then be a likely concomitant reduction in price. Conversely, the prospects for significantly increasing agriculture production and decreasing the real price of food are not even remotely as favorable. Ironically, one raw commodity experiencing a significant increase in output has been cotton (the price of which was artificially low because of U.S. subsidies) because of the major increases in production in India, China, and elsewhere as a result of the introduction of transgenic cotton. There is a message here, but unfortunately, the NGO propaganda machine has so distorted it that it has not made it to the general public and to policy makers in developed countries. <cut>

Biotechnology is also needed to address the emergence of new fungal, bacterial, viral, or pest threats to agriculture such as Ug99 for wheat, striga (also known as witchweed) for maize, and black sigatoka for bananas. Overall, there is a consensus that there needs to be far more resources dedicated to agricultural research at all levels globally, regionally, nationally, and locally. The mantra of "carbon footprint" causing global warming has given rise to Green advocacy of buying food locally (some of the adherents of this view are called "locavores") and the use of the slogan "food miles" to oppose the importation of food from Africa and other areas of the South. In Africa, this puts in jeopardy close to 2 million jobs and threatens one of the few successes in African agriculture.

Read on at http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.1183/news_detail.asp
Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and an ACSH Trustee.