Alternatives to Biotech Food
Here are a few follow up ideas from the NYT Room for Debate. This is such a huge topic it's hard to know what to put in 300 words. I opted more for context than hard recommendations in my 300 word spiel. If I had more space I probably would have laid out these additional points:
- I don't think biotech crops are evil and could be a big help, especially in developing nations. But I think we'd be naive to think these will solve all the world's food problems going forward. Maybe they will but they probably won't.
- Good development policy, whatever that may be, is surely good food policy. In many ways food is too cheap relative to income in rich countries and too expensive relative to income in poor countries. Both problems are solved if incomes are more equal. Figuring out good development policy is, err..., much harder...
- I think a meat tax makes a lot of sense. Taxing meat would help to keep staple grains cheap and plentiful, which would help the poorest food-importing countries and probably improve health outcomes in rich countries. Some economists would probably cry foul. They might claim lump-sum transfers of cash would be a better way to deal with the underlying distributional issue. The problem is effective transfers to especially poor countries are very difficult. (Consider why those countries are poor in the first place.) Also, given our semi-public health care systems in rich countries, there could be negative externalities from meat consumption.
- Stop ethanol subsidies. These look really silly.
- Then there is that other externality we might want to tax or cap (CO2).
- I do think population growth is a concern, but one intimately tied to the broader problem of poverty and income inequality. Educate women and provide them with birth control and people live longer and countries grow richer. This touches on the most important aspects of good development policy of which I am aware.
- I think both Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon were foolish gamblers. It's very hard to predict where prices are headed. Julian Simon was simply lucky. From here on I can see both dismal and relatively utopian futures as distinctly possible.
- While dismal outcomes are possible, they are not Malthusian. We have birth control today. The economic tensions are very different from those described by Malthus.