A shocking statistic has come to light: Venezuelans lost 19 pounds on average over the past year because of food shortages.
There was a time when hunger was a near-universal experience. As Kevin D. Williamson put it, “Not long ago, the great dream and aspiration of most of the people walking this Earth was to have enough to eat, for themselves and for their children, and to be liberated from worrying about whether they would eat again tomorrow or the next day.”
Then, something changed. Exchange and specialization helped bring down food prices. A burst of innovations called the Green Revolution led to higher agricultural productivity and decreased food prices even further. Even as the world’s population grew, the market ensured that the supply of food rose to meet growing demand.
The global numbers are heartening. The share of the world’s population suffering from hunger is shrinking. Despite population growth, the total number of undernourished persons is lower as well. Even those who are food-deprived are less severely malnourished than in the past. Humanity now produces more than enough food to theoretically feed everyone on Earth the recommended 2,000 calories per day.
Hunger was declining in Venezuela too until recently. The percentage of Venezuela’s population suffering from undernourishment fell from 14% in 1991 to “5% or lower” in 2015, the latest year for which the United Nations has data. Since then, the situation has rapidly deteriorated. In a single year, the number of cases of severely undernourished children in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas, doubled.
The reason? Venezuela’s socialist economic policies, briefly sustained by fleeting high oil prices, led to hyperinflation and a societal collapse. If Venezuela continues on its present course, hunger is likely to become more widespread.
We can all be thankful that undernourishment has become rarer globally. But the case of Venezuela demonstrates that progress is not inevitable—suicidal economic policies, like socialism, can rapidly extinguish the prosperity we enjoy.
Thanks to market exchange, Americans enjoy a greater variety of food choices, pay less for groceries than before, and have more income left over after grocery expenses. And, of course, this abundance is not limited to food, but extends to material goods and technology.
Bafflingly, there are those who bemoan abundance. Bernie Sanders, to name one, has said, “You don't necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers.”
When grocery-shopping to stock up for the impending blizzard, many of us on the U.S. East Coast were met with extremely limited choices and nearly barren aisles. When I attempted to buy sliced cheese, for example, there was only a single kind left: Swiss. There was no provolone or Muenster or pepper jack or cheddar or Colby any of the other varieties normally available. Although I find Swiss cheese bland, I bought it because it was my only option. I and many others were “living the dream” of those who romanticize scarcity.
An economics professor summed up the situation in this humorous tweet:
Phosphorus (P) is an important macronutrient necessary for plant photosynthesis. When present in sufficient quantities, it has been shown to benefit plants by stimulating the formation of oils, sugars and starches, fostering rapid tissue growth and development, increasing stalk and stem strength, improving resistance to disease, enhancing crop quality, aiding flower and seed production, and benefiting a host of other growth- and development-related factors and processes. Out in the real world, however, P availability is often limited. Consequently, plants have developed multiple adaptive mechanisms (morphological, physiological and molecular) to help them cope with P insufficiency (Pi).
Despite such adaptive mechanisms, there are concerns that Pi will increase in the future as atmospheric CO2 concentrations rise. This hypothesis is based upon the recognition that elevated CO2 stimulates plant photosynthesis and growth. Such stimulation, however, is expected to require additional amounts of P in order for plants to sustain the projected CO2-induced growth enhancements. Otherwise, if P is limiting in the growth medium, or if plant adaptive mechanisms cannot compensate for the increased P demand, the growth benefits of CO2 enrichment may be reduced, and possibly wholly overcome, by Pi.
The Wall Street Journal put out an article with some excellent visual representations of the world’s changing demographics. (Please remember that you can also explore population growth, fertility rates, and the changing age make-up of the population using HumanProgress.org’s interactive maps and charts).
The WSJ notes,
In 1798 Thomas Malthus, a British essayist, argued that humanity would reproduce faster than food production could rise, leading to destitution and starvation. He was wrong. The Western world’s population grew rapidly over the 19th and 20th centuries, with a dip in 1918-19 because of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. But rising agricultural productivity proved more than capable of feeding the extra mouths.
Humanity found ways to produce more food per unit of land through innovations like synthetic fertilizers and increasingly advanced genetic modification techniques. As production increased, prices fell, calorie consumption increased, and undernourishment fell even as the world’s population grew.
Malthus’ mistake was to ignore human beings’ ability to innovate their way out of problems. But, as Julian Simon found in The Ultimate Resource, people are excellent problem-solvers. A challenge (feeding a growing population), led to technological innovation (the Green Revolution and GMOs) and that led to a solution (higher agricultural productivity and falling food prices).
As Human Progress advisory board member Matt Ridley notes in The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything, technological innovation depends on the exchange of ideas. The more people there are (and the freer and more timely their exchange of ideas), the better.
The WSJ article recognizes problems associated with declining working-age populations—especially when it comes to unsustainable social security commitments those countries have made to their elderly. The WSJ also notes that government programs to incentivize having more children do not seem to work very well, and are not a viable solution.
One of the ways in which nations could increase their growth rates is to attract immigrants from other countries where their talents may be wasted. To learn more about the economics of immigration and the contentious issues surrounding the debate, including the effects of immigration on the native-born population’s wages and culture, consider registering for Cato’s forum in January on the subject.
The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services made headlines last winter when they released the draft form of their updated dietary guidelines and revealed that they were considering “sustainability” as a factor in their recommended diet—and by “sustainable” they meant foods that had “lower greenhouse gases” associated with their production. This favors plant-based foods over animal- based ones.
President Obama’s Climate Action Plan now even had its far-reaching fingers in our food. We found this somewhat rude.
Under the wildly-crazy assumption that all Americans, now and forever, were to convert to vegetarianism, we calculated that the net impact on future global warming as a result of reduced greenhouse gas emissions was two ten-thousandths of a degree Celsius (0.0002°C) per year. Not surprisingly, we concluded if one were worried about future climate change, “ridding your table of steak shouldn’t be high on the list.”
Who isn’t nuts about fresh tomatoes plucked from a garden at the peak of ripeness? And who doesn’t bask in the adulation of those to whom we give them?
According to work recently published by Maria Sanchez-González et al. (2015), the more years you garden, the more tasty your tomatoes are likely to get, as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. And, if you add a pinch of salt to the soil, they’ll taste even better.
Here’s the story:
The authors note “the South-Eastern region of Spain is an important area for both production and exportation of very high quality tomatoes for fresh consumption.” This is primarily due to favorable growing conditions such as a mild climate, good soils and saline waters that promote “exceptional fruit quality of some varieties,” including the Raf tomato hybrid. However, Sánchez-González et al. additionally note that, “despite the high value of Raf tomatoes in the Spanish national market, their productivity is relatively low and the consumer does not always get an acceptable quality, often because the fruit growth conditions, mainly thermal and osmotic, were not adequate.” Against this backdrop, the team of six researchers set out to determine if they could improve the production value of this high value commercial crop by manipulating the environmental conditions in which the tomatoes are grown. To accomplish this objective, they grew hybrid Raf tomato plants (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill. cv. Delizia) in controlled environment greenhouses at two salinity levels (low and high) under ambient (350 ppm) and elevated (800 ppm) CO2 concentrations. Then over the course of the growing season, and at harvest, they measured several parameters related to the growth and quality of the hybrid tomatoes. And what did their analysis of those measurements reveal?
A recent article in Business Insider showing what the ancestors of modern fruits and vegetables looked like painted a bleak picture. A carrot was indistinguishable from any skinny brown root yanked up from the earth at random. Corn looked nearly as thin and insubstantial as a blade of grass. Peaches were once tiny berries with more pit than flesh. Bananas were the least recognizable of all, lacking the best features associated with their modern counterparts: the convenient peel and the seedless interior. How did these barely edible plants transform into the appetizing fruits and vegetables we know today? The answer is human ingenuity and millennia of genetic modification.
(Photo Credit: Genetic Literacy Project and Shutterstock via Business Insider).