Unintended Consequences

April 23, 2007 • Commentary
By Indur M. Goklany
This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune on April 23, 2007.

In the past year, concern for the environment has risen to the top of the public’s agenda. Now the environmental movement must face a monster of its own making. The very success of environmentalism threatens to undo two of mankind’s most significant environmental victories. The first is the near stabilization of humanity’s agricultural footprint, expansion of which is the single largest threat to biodiversity worldwide. The second is the spectacular reduction in chronic hunger and malnutrition without which the pressure to convert land for agricultural use would have been stronger.

Around the globe between 1990 and 2003, the amount of land given over to agricultural uses increased less than 2 percent, even though population growth increased 20 percent. Chronic hunger in developing countries declined to 17 percent from 37 percent between 1970 and 2001, despite an 83 percent increase in population. These improvements, largely due to greater agricultural productivity, increased food production per capita, helping to drive down global food prices by about 75 percent since 1950. As a result, access to food increased worldwide, despite increasing demand from a wealthier and more populated world.

The resulting reductions in hunger further reduced pressures for converting more land for agricultural uses.

Global warming hysteria — a boon for the ethanol and other biofuel enterprises — has boosted demand for crop‐​based fuels worldwide. This now threatens to reverse a half century of gains not only against world hunger, but also in holding the line against conversion of undeveloped land.

The cost of food has jumped over 10 percent in India over the past year, and 6 percent in China, according to The Wall Street Journal. This is partly due to the diversion of corn to biofuels.

In the United States, driven by subsidized ethanol, farmers were planning to plant a record 90.5 million acres in corn in 2007, the highest since 1944, while at the same time reducing acreage in soybeans, rice and cotton.

Meanwhile, European demand for biofuels to replace gasoline is fueling plans for massive clearing of rainforests for palm‐​oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

These rainforests, among other things, provide refuge for the Sumatran tiger, Borneo’s orangutan and the Malaysian elephant.

Ironically, much of the hysteria over global warming is itself fueled by concerns that it may drive numerous species to extinction and increase hunger worldwide, especially in developing countries. Yet the biofuel solution would only make bad matters worse on both counts.

As long as global warming is hyped as the world’s most important environmental problem — as many politicians and environmental pressure groups claim — it will be virtually impossible to rationally evaluate other options in dealing with climate change, or confront the unintended consequences unleashed by global warming hysteria.

About the Author
Indur M. Goklany