I Lean Dismal, But I'm Not a Malthusian

Following his big New York Times piece of food supply, demand and climate change, Justin Gillis has followed up with a series nice blog posts on the Times' blog called Green.

Here are the links:

Reverent Malthus and the Future of Food

Can the Yield Gap Be Closed--Sustainably?

Answering Questions About the World's Food Supply

F.A.O. Sees Stubbornly High Food Prices

World Food Supply: What's To Be Done?

These are nice articles and I highly recommend all of them.

In putting all the pieces together, I think it's important to see how different the current and potentially catastrophic future problems differ from old Malthusian notions.  As I've mentioned before, this is as much a global inequality problem as it is a food supply problem.

Economists have long complained about Malthusian types like Paul Erlich because they ignore or downplay the role of prices and incentives.  Economists have a good point:  if food commodity prices get high enough I believe it's clear we'll have the ability to produce plenty of food.  We could probably even grow that food with a lot less pollution byproducts.  But to produce that much food "sustainably" would require food prices so much higher than they are today.  And if food prices get that high, we'll be in solidly dismal territory for the world's poorest.

So there's the rub:  Price response works real nice if we're all relatively rich.  The problem is food commodity prices are so low they are basically ignored by consumers in rich countries.  But those prices are still high enough that a third of the world struggles to buy enough to meet basic needs.  This sits at the crux of why are not going to solve the world's food problems by having the relatively wealthy eat less meat.

Rubbing more salt in that wound is the uncomfortable fact that the historic path to development has been, at least implicitly, through cheap food.  I do think it's possible that high prices could be the catalyst for positive change in some places.  But it's already clear that institutional changes in the Middle East and North Africa are going to be slow and painful.  It's hard for me to be especially optimistic about the institutional and economic progress of poor countries in an environment with high and rising food prices.

I firmly believe that adapting to climate change (at least with regard to food production) would be relatively easy if everyone were as rich as the United States. But that's not the world we live in.


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