Tag: food

Capitalism Defused the Population Bomb

Journalists know that alarmism attracts readers. Just yesterday, an article in the British newspaper The Independent titled, “Have we reached ‘peak food’? Shortages loom as global production rates slow” claimed humanity will soon face mass starvation. Just as Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb  predicted that millions would die due to food shortages in the 1970s and 1980s, the article from yesterday tried to capture readers’ interest through unfounded fear. Let’s take a look at the actual state of global food production.

The alarmists cite statistics showing that while we continue to produce more and more food every year, the rate of acceleration is slowing down slightly. The article then presumes that if the rate of food production growth slows, then widespread starvation is inevitable. This is misleading. Let us take a look at the global trend in net food production, per person, measured in 2004-2006 international dollars. Here you can see that even taking population growth into account, food production per person is actually increasing:

Global Warming and World Food Security

In a recent study to come out of China, Liu et al. (2014) write “food security under the changing climate is a great challenge for the world,” noting it has been stated by Porter et al. (2014) in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report that “the negative impact of global climate warming on crop yield is more common than the positive impact according to the data from the past fifty years.”

That’s not true. Crop yields continue to rise, to the consternation of many, at the exact same rate that they have been rising at since the end of World War II. Even more telling, Liu et al. report studies based on historical data for the past several centuries suggest just the opposite, i.e. that “climate warming is good for crop harvests while climate cooling is bad for crop harvests in the world’s main crop production areas such as Europe (Braudel, 1992; Parker and Smith, 1997; Holopainen and Helama, 2009; Zhang et al., 2011) and China (Zhang, 1996; Ge, 2010; Su et al., 2014) in the temperate region.” They conclude “the current lengths of studies used to evaluate climate impacts on agriculture are too short to detect long-term trends.”

In making their case, the five Chinese scientists employed proxy data-based climate reconstructions that indicate that the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) and Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) had warm climates comparable with the present, citing in this regard the study of Ge et al. (2003) that shows a strong periodicity in China temperatures. They additionally note that within this primarily warm climate regime, there were imbedded temperature variations—with cooling segments of inter-annual, multiple-decade and century-scale magnitude—which enabled them to assess crop yield responses to both heating and cooling from information provided about food availability in numerous historical documents that have been brought together in several historical compilations that deal with various aspects of China’s past, including Wang (1955), Wei et al. (1973), Li (1974), Liu (1975), Ouyang et al. (1975), Sima (1975), Dong (1985), Wang et al. (1985) and Song (2008). What did they thereby discover?

Russia, Sanctions, and Food

The Russian government announced on August 6 that it will ban imports of most food and agricultural products from Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway and the United States for one year.  The full extent of the ban, as well as its effects on exporters and Russian consumers, are not yet clear.  It is interesting, though, to contrast this action with an earlier effort to use food sanctions as a diplomatic weapon:  the 1980 embargo of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with 80,000 troops and 1800 tanks.  President Carter responded by cancelling private contracts to supply 17 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. wheat and corn to the Soviet Union.  However, he chose to allow shipment of 8 MMT that had been agreed as part of the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Grains Agreement.  Sales in excess of the level assured in the Grains Agreement were embargoed.

Because grains are relatively fungible, and because numerous countries had surpluses available for export, the Soviets were able to replace most of the embargoed grain from willing suppliers.  Argentine agriculture did particularly well during that timeframe.  U.S. agriculture did not do so well.  Market prices had been relatively high, in large part due to strong export demand.  When a considerable portion of that demand evaporated with the stroke of a pen, commodity prices fell precipitously. 

The grain embargo became a potent political issue in the 1980 presidential campaign.  Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the embargo helped to boost his campaign in rural areas.  He took office in January 1981 and revoked the embargo three months later.

In retrospect, the grain embargo generally is seen as supporting the proposition that economic sanctions often inflict greater costs on the country imposing them than on the country at which they are aimed.

The new sanctions are expected to cut off some $15 billion in Russian imports from the EU.  Russia has been Europe’s second largest (behind the United States) export market for foodstuffs, accounting for 10 percent of the EU’s total foreign sales.  The United States has a smaller stake, with only $1.3 billion of food/ag exports to Russia.  That country has been the third largest market for U.S. poultry exports.  About 7 percent of U.S. poultry exports – valued at over $300 million – were shipped to Russia last year, down from 20 percent as recently as 2008.  Russia’s WTO commitments should prevent import restrictions based on political pressures.  Nonetheless, trade in poultry appears to have fluctuated over time in response to the influence of Russia’s domestic poultry producers.  (It’s worth noting that Russia’s import ban does not include either baby food or wine.  It’s not clear how those omissions should be interpreted.)

‘New Food Safety Bill Could Make Things Worse’

That’s not just my view; that’s the view of writer Barry Estabrook, an ardent critic of the food industry (“Politics of the Plate”), writing at The Atlantic. You needn’t go along completely with Estabrook’s dim view of industrialized agriculture to realize he’s right in one of his central contentions: “the proposed rules would disproportionately impose costs upon” small producers, including traditional, low-tech and organic farmers and foodmakers selling to neighbors and local markets. Even those with flawless safety records or selling low-risk types of foodstuff could be capsized by new paperwork and regulatory burdens that larger operations will be able to absorb as a cost of doing business. (Earlier here and here.)

Things could reach a showdown any day now. The food safety bill had stalled in the Senate under criticism from small farmer advocates, as the New York Times acknowledged the other day in an absurdly slanted editorial that somehow got printed as a news article. Now Harry Reid is talking about forcing the bill through before the midterms. Significantly – as advocates of the bill trumpet – large foodmakers and agribusiness concerns have signed off on the bill as acceptable to them. Well, yes, they would, wouldn’t they?

I was on TV the other week (Hearst news service) trying to make a few of these points. I borrowed my closing line from an excellent Steve Chapman column, which I was unable to credit on air, but can credit here.

The Calorie Police

What can I say about San Francisco’s ban on vending machines for sugared soft drinks on city property?

I could say that a twelve ounce can of Coca-Cola has fewer calories than twelve ounces of whole milk, because it does – 140 to 216.

I could say that you’ll be even fatter if you substitute whole milk for Coke, ounce for ounce, because you will be.

I could say that the extra nutrients in milk don’t do anything to make it less fattening, because they don’t.

I could say that 12 ounces of soy milk has 198 calories, which is still well above Coke’s 140.

I could even say that switching to skim milk doesn’t help you all that much – if you do the math, you’ll find that there are 124.5 calories in 12oz of skim milk, compared, again, to 140 for Coke.

I could also point out that a tall Starbucks Frappuccino – also 12 ounces, and not covered by the ban – has 190 calories, largely from sugar and fat.

I could ask: Does anyone ever order a plain Frappuccino? A tall mocha Frappuccino has 220 calories.

Finally, I could point out that banning vending-machine drinks while leaving Starbucks untouched is a pretty rank example of class privilege at work – my indulgences are sophisticated and upper-class, while yours are vulgar and prole.

And, I imagine I hardly need to make the case that this ban is the thin end of a wedge, and that comprehensive regulation of sugar, fat, and salt is on the way.

But really, it’s a lot simpler than that. What I should say is that your body is yours. Liberals themselves would tell you just the same in many other contexts. It’s yours to do with as you see fit. It’s yours to use, and it’s yours to use up, as Dan Savage once put it. (Can bans on risky sex be far behind?)

Part of being free is being free to make bad choices, to take risks, and to bear the consequences. Part of being free is that you, personally, may decide what you eat or drink. It’s a liberty so elementary that our founders never even imagined that it would need protection, but today, it does. (These same founders also rioted when the British taxed their tea. Which I’m sure Parliament only did for their own good anyway.)

To be sure, there are many costs associated with socialized health care, and some of the choices we make will certainly raise those costs. That’s one big reason why the nanny state is suddenly in the food business. But if we absolutely must have socialized health care – a point I don’t for a moment concede – then I’d prefer to pay a little bit extra and keep all my other liberties, thanks.