Gideon Rachman in “We cannot go on eating like this” in the Financial Times, points out the increasing heated discussion between advanced and emerging economies over resource issues, particularly food.
The positions of the two camps are fairly easy to set forth: the West says, “You can’t have what we have, it’ll ruin the planet,” while developing countries argue, “Our people deserve the same lifestyle.”
The article does a good job of highlighting some of the issues without going into the charged area of solutions (mainly because the author doesn’t see any obvious ways out). However, there are some oversights. The first is that the planet is facing a number of resource constraints, and food, water, and energy are interlinked. Look how the hasty adoption of corn-based ethanol as a fuel has created havoc in grain prices (note that Brazilian sugar-based ethanol, by contrast, is not problematic from a food markets standpoint). Similarly, some economists have argued that the food crisis can be easily remedied, since 60-70% of the land currently under cultivation is not up to the productivity levels of modern agriculture. Ah, but that sort of high-out farming is more energy and equipment intensive. So these issues need to be addressed jointly, but that does not appear to be the way these discussions are headed.
Second, the ugly third rail issue (somehow verboten) is population. The planet has too many people, period. The main reason for the increase in global population is not higher birth rates but higher survival rates. And birth rates in first world economies haven’t fallen fast enough to compensate for declining child mortality rates (and more or less static birth rates) in developing countries. But to talk about the need for, ahem, family planning is a charged issue in the US (and that’s before you get to the Bush administration fealty to dubious methods like abstinence) which guarantees we won’t bring it up as a collective issue. As biologist E.O. Wilson said in a 1993 essay, “Is Humanity Suicidal“:
Now in the midst of a population explosion, the human species has doubled to 5.5 billion during the past 50 years. It is scheduled to double again in the next 50 years. No other single species in evolutionary history has even remotely approached the sheer mass in protoplasm generated by humanity.
Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. It was a misfortune for the living world in particular, many scientists believe, that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough. Our species retains hereditary traits that add greatly to our destructive impact. We are tribal and aggressively territorial, intent on private space beyond minimal requirements and oriented by selfish sexual and reproductive drives. Cooperation beyond the family and tribal levels comes hard.
Worse, our liking for meat causes us to use the sun’s energy at low efficiency. It is a general rule of ecology that (very roughly) only about 10 percent of the sun’s energy captured by photosynthesis to produce plant tissue is converted into energy in the tissue of herbivores, the animals that eat the plants. Of that amount, 10 percent reaches the tissue of the carnivores feeding on the herbivores. Similarly, only 10 percent is transferred to carnivores that eat carnivores. And so on for another step or two.
In a wetlands chain that runs from marsh grass to grasshopper to warbler to hawk, the energy captured during green production shrinks a thousandfold. In other words, it takes a great deal of grass to support a hawk. Human beings, like hawks, are top carnivores, at the end of the food chain whenever they eat meat, two or more links removed from the plants; if chicken, for example, two links, and if tuna, four links.
Even with most societies confined today to a mostly vegetarian diet, humanity is gobbling up a large part of the rest of the living world. We appropriate between 20 and 40 percent of the sun’s energy that would otherwise be fixed into the tissue of natural vegetation, principally by our consumption of crops and timber, construction of buildings and roadways and the creation of wastelands. In the relentless search for more food, we have reduced animal life in lakes, rivers and now, increasingly, the open ocean.
But even recognizing that the problem is fundamentally one of population, merely stopping the growth rate is like halting a supertanker; reversing it would take even longer and raises intergenearational challenges (how do you take care of an overhang of old people?) and paranoid suspicions that restraints on birth rates are really attempts at genocide.
With that as prelude comes three, sacrifice. The only way first world countries can moderate the demands of rapidly growing third world nations is to demonstrate willingness to make real lifestyle cutbacks. Cynically, that is making a virtue of necessity, because the West and the developing world simply continue on their resource collision course, we’ll all be considerably less well off. But again, such idealism flies in the face of how America works. Suggest, for instance, that people eat less beef and pork and enrage the agricultural lobby (and not to mention hamburger chains). Oh, we dare not do that, no matter how great the stakes. So we’ll have to wait until rationing, whether formal or de facto though vastly higher prices, is forced upon us. Or worse.
From the Financial Times:
It is all very awkward. China and India are getting richer. And it appears their new middle classes want all the things we want: cars, washing machines, even meat. Here in the west, we have to restrain ourselves from saying: “Stop. You can’t live like us. The planet can’t stand it. And our wallets can’t stand it. Have you seen the price of petrol?”
Global equity is the awkward issue lying behind the world food crisis. In the long run, it will also prove fundamental to discussions on energy and global warming.
But, for the moment, this difficult, abstract issue is largely obscured by the urgency of finding practical solutions to rising food prices.
Everywhere I have travelled over the past six months, the cost of food has dominated political discussion. In Pakistan I was told that, while foreigners might worry about terrorism or President Pervez Musharraf, ordinary Pakistanis were much more concerned by the soaring price of wheat. In the Middle East, the political impact of rising food prices is discussed with more urgency than Iran or the Palestinians. But food-price inflation is an issue not just in poor countries. In France, aides to President Nicolas Sarkozy point to the rising cost of food and fuel as the key to his slump in the polls. In Britain and the US, unpopular governments tell a similar story…
There is a strong risk that rising food prices will lead to global political friction. Look at the reaction in India to some fairly anodyne comments by President George W. Bush. He said that rising prosperity in the developing world led to people “demanding better nutrition and better food” and so “demand is higher and that causes prices to go up”.
The reaction in India was furious. Commentators railed about how much more Americans eat than Indians – chucking in a few nasty asides about fat Yanks and liposuction.
On one level, this reaction was ridiculous. Most impartial analysts, including the World Bank, agree that rising prosperity in the developing world is an important underlying cause of rising food prices.
But the emotional Indian reaction is also understandable. Any hint that the good life is available only to westerners is unacceptable. Europeans and Americans do eat much more per head than the Chinese or Indians. While rising food prices strain household budgets in the west, they risk famines in Africa and Asia.
The west is also making its own contribution to the food crisis – through subsidies for biofuels….The moral dilemmas thrown up by calculating per capita consumption are not confined to food. They apply just as acutely to global warming.
The US points out that China is now the world’s biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions. No global agreement on greenhouse gases will be worthwhile unless it includes China, India and other rising powers.
The Chinese respond by pointing out that the average American still has a far larger carbon footprint than the average Chinese….The moral quandary is made all the more tricky by the fact that the stock of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – the source of today’s global warming – is overwhelmingly the product of two centuries of western industrialisation. But now that it is the developing world’s turn, the west says it is time to stop….
Western politicians struggle to find a convincing response to these developing-world complaints. But they will struggle just as hard to persuade their voters to cut back, to accommodate the rise of a richer Asia.
So – with food, as with climate change – we shall have to hope that technology rides to the rescue. It has happened before. At the beginning of the 20th century, the discovery of nitrogen-based chemical fertilisers massively expanded world food supplies – just as experts were fretting that the world’s booming population would lead to famine. In the 1960s, the “green revolution” allowed for a further leap in agricultural production.
The trouble is that the new technological fixes are elusive. Wider tolerance of genetically modified crops might help with food. But many of the technologies touted to cut global warming – such as solar power and carbon capture – are far from fruition.
Politicians can help the process by providing incentives for behaviour changes and investment in new technologies. However, there will be a very difficult transition as the world adjusts to higher food and energy prices and waits for new technologies to emerge and flourish.
But what is the alternative? Any solution that is based on asking India and China to stay poor is politically and morally unsustainable.