Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Economist report on feeding the world

This is a special report from the Economist, consisting in various articles on the challenges and prospects for feeding our world's growing population. I'm surprised at how well-researched and well-written the series is. Of course the Economist is always an excellent source of information on politics and economy, but usually such publications write oversimplified treatments of agriculture, informed more by bias and corporate propaganda than by the real world.

A slight exception to the Economist report's overall excellent and nuanced treatment is this article, which is a generally good discussion of technology's role in improving food production. I found one outright error, which is the misstatement that genetically-modified Bt corn resists a herbicide (it doesn't; it produces a natural poison to kill insect pests). And the assertion that confinement animal operations are more efficient than pasturing animals is narrow-sighted and not entirely true. Basically, it's true that a chicken fed only on mixed rations may produce more eggs or meat than a free-range chicken, and even when we subtract the cost of food and infrastructure, the confined animal may sometimes produce a higher net profit. But if we're talking about sheer amounts of food needed to feed the world (which is the theme of the special report), the amount of land (and water, and fossil-fuel-derived fertilizer, and most other resources) required to produce the feed for a confined chicken is usually going to exceed the amount of resources necessary for a chicken raised on a mix of pasture and feed. So in many cases the world as a whole would be better off, and produce more livestock, if that livestock were produced directly on crop and pastureland, as opposed to growing commodity crops to then feed to concentrated, confined animals.

There is also a jab at Europe. This concluding article claims that Europe will not be as big of a player in world food markets. This is probably true, but it's not, as the author claims, because of Europe's anti-technology stance. Europe happens to have some of the highest yields per acre and most productive animals of anywhere in the world. They are leaders in high-tech, high-input agriculture, as well as in ways of lessening agriculture's effect on the environment. The fact that the continent has largely rejected genetically modified crops, and is trying to make animal production more humane, has not decreased its productivity. In fact, it is precisely Europe's high productivity that makes it unlikely to increase its influence in the future. Countries like Brazil or Angola have lots of land and use unproductive methods, so there's a big potential for them to increase production and hence become more important on the world food scene. Europe has no new land to expand to, and is already so extraordinarily productive that there's not much room for improvement.

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