December 12, 2011
by Dennis T. Avery
For 25 years, the Washington Post has praised organic foods—while I warned that low-yield organic farming posed a threat to the world's wildlife.
I estimated that Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution not only saved billions of people from starvation, but at the same time saved 7 million square miles of wildlife habitat that would otherwise have been plowed down for more low-yielding crops. Seven million square miles is the land area of South America. That's "high-yield conservation."
I was thus amazed when a December 4th Post editorial recommended more high-yield farming! The Post noted in "Feeding the Future" that human numbers may rise as high as 10 billion before they level off about 2050. "The smart response," said the Post, "is to improve how humans produce food by applying ever-more-efficient agricultural techniques more widely." The paper even prodded the environmental movement for opposing "biotechnology, another important tool for efficiency... which enhances the ancient practice of artificial genetic selections and could make crops more productive and more resistant to drought and bad weather." The editorial also chided the European Union, where "unfounded opposition [to biotechnology] is particularly extreme... blocking just the sort of breakthroughs environmentalists and world poverty advocates should encourage."
The Post's change of heart is coming at the crucial moment. Yes, the world's seven- billionth person has just been born, somewhere. But the Post now seems to realize that birth rates in the poor countries have come about 80 percent of the way to stability since 1960. Birth rates in the First World are already well below the replacement rate of 2.1 births. The lower birth rates mirror the planet's declining death rates and human numbers are about to shift from slow increase to slow decrease.
This means the world's current wildlife habitat could mostly be saved with one last major burst of higher-yield farming technology. We'll need to double world food output in just 40 years—but for the last time! Global food demand will stabilize, then decline. The Reverend Thomas Malthus' 19th-century misunderstanding of population dynamics can then finally be put to rest.
The food production problem is that we're farming just about all of the planet's high-quality land—and using the available high-yield technologies on most of it: fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation, improved seeds. The one big high-yield farming technology we haven't fully exploited is biotechnology.
In fact, the EU has not only opposed biotech for its own markets, but has threatened the Third World countries with import bans if they plant biotech seeds to feed their own people. The EU has "helped" poor countries install onerous regulations to ensure that new biotech breakthroughs won't get into farmers' fields until decades have passed, if ever. "Golden rice" can save millions of poor children in rice-eating culture from going blind and both mothers and children dying of severe Vitamin A deficiency. It was discovered 20 years ago, and hasn't yet been allowed to be planted in a farmer's field!
The European Union thinks this blockade of biotech is very clever. However, they also thought it was very clever to let Greece, Italy, and Spain overspend their budgets for decades, while Germany and France covered the debts. Now the differences are too great to paper over. We, and perhaps even the Washington Post, understand more fully now that the EU's judgment on long-term issues is highly questionable—and in the case of the third world, despicable.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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