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Category — Agriculture

Thankfully Wrong: World Agriculture Booms in Face of Dire Predictions

“One must wonder when the climate-damaging effects on agriculture will appear. Maybe rising agricultural production is like rising polar bear populations—the decline begins tomorrow.”

The year 2013 has been a great year for global agriculture. Record world production of rice and healthy production of wheat and corn produced strong harvests across the world. These gains were achieved despite continuing predictions that world agricultural output is headed for a decline.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that world rice harvests for 2012/2013 were a record 469 million metric tons. Corn and wheat harvests were also strong, following record harvests for both grains during the 2011/2012 season. The USDA is now projecting world record harvests for corn, wheat, and rice for 2013/2014.

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These numbers cap a 50-year trend of remarkable growth in world grain production. Since 1960, global wheat and rice production has tripled, and corn production is almost five times higher. [Read more →]

November 29, 2013   1 Comment

Locavorism vs. Resource Efficiency

“By concentrating the growing of crops in ever more suitable locations, hydrocarbon-powered long distance trade not only maximized output and drastically lowered prices, but also significantly reduced the environmental impact of agriculture.”

“Turning our back on the global food supply chain and, in the process, reducing the quantity of food produced in the most suitable locations will inevitably result in larger amounts of inferior land being put under cultivation, the outcome of which can only be less output and greater environmental damage.”

An article of faith among local food activists is that modern industrial agriculture damages the environmental more than decentralized food systems. The article of faith is that concentrated impacts are worse than multiple, smaller operations–negative environmental  scale economies, as it were.

This belief is erroneous, creating a gulf between (good) intentions and result. The low-productivity practices now advocated by locavores, ironically, are the very ones that previous generations of environmental activists blamed for deforestation, massive soil erosion, depletion and compaction, and outright ecological collapse.

Agricultural Alarmism Historically Considered

In an often quoted passage, Plato complained that Athens’ hinterland hills–once “covered with soil,” the plains “full of rich earth,” and the mountains displaying an “abundance of wood”–could now “only afford sustenance to bees.” Like the decline of small islands, Athens’s “richer and softer parts of the soil [had] fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land … left.” [1] 

Even though some scholars now suggest that the Greek philosopher was exaggerating to make a point, [2] fears of widespread land mismanagement and irremediable top soil losses recurred from then on.

In the 1939 classic, The Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion, [3] for example, British writers Graham Vernon Jacks and Robert Orr Whyte argued that “as the result solely of human mismanagement, the soils upon which men have attempted to found new civilizations are disappearing, washed away by water and blown away by wind.” [Read more →]

July 18, 2013   5 Comments

Debating Locavores: Food to Energy to Smart Action (response to critics)

“Locavores” believe that food produced near final consumers is superior in myriads of ways to distant imports. While they might disagree among themselves on what exactly constitutes a “local foodshed” (a 100-mile radius or the whole state of California?), they have for the most part internalized long standing populist and romantic grievances against modern agricultural science, fossil fuels, large corporations and globalization.

As they see things, our modern-day genetically-modified “corn-utopia” is soaking up a rapidly vanishing petroleum pool while delivering junk food, cancer epidemics, rural poverty, and agricultural pollution. The way forward, they tell us, actually requires several steps backward to a simpler time when consumers personally knew and trusted the farmers that fed them…

Belief Confronts Reality

Fortunately, the locavores’ dire vision is at odds with the relevant data. Although it undoubtedly pains most of them to hear this, we live (much) longer and healthier lives than our ancestors; the overall state of our environment has improved significantly over the last century; and our food supply is cheaper, safer and more secure than ever before. [1]

In our book The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet (reviewed for this blog by Alex Epstein ), we draw on economic logic and basic scientific, geographical and historical facts to illustrate how the long distance trade in foodstuffs played a critical role in bringing about such positive trends.

What the world really needs, we argue, is to get rid of trade barriers, agricultural subsidies and uneconomical and environmentally unsound policies such as the ethanol mandate so that more food can be produced more cheaply in the world’s best locations by ever more efficient farmers.

Politically Incorrect Debate in Full Swing

To our surprise, our politically incorrect piece of work received much (and by and large fair) coverage. Of course, many die-hard locavores quickly denounced us as paid shills of Monsanto. A prominent Canadian food activist called us “baby killers” to our face. An anonymous reviewer on Amazon.com was in such a hurry to point the errors of our way that she didn’t notice that the book was co-authored! [Read more →]

August 10, 2012   10 Comments

The Globavore’s Achievement — A Review of ‘The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet’

“When reading this book, I had two feelings that I often have when reading Desrochers and Shimizu’s work–’Why was I never taught this?’ and ‘Everybody need to know this!’ …. The Locavore’s Dilemma will give you an appreciation of the unappreciated glory that is capitalist agriculture, which is responsible for the fact that you are alive, will live a long time, and in greater health than nearly anyone in history.”

One reason why the modern Green movement has won Americans’ hearts and minds, even as it advocates anti-development, anti-capitalist policies, is that the advocates of capitalism have spent too little time explaining, in vivid detail, the staggering improvements to human life that capitalism, and only capitalism, brings.

Advocates of capitalism have too often played defense, allowing anti-capitalists to control the debate: the anti-capitalists blame every problem (or pseudo-problem) under the sun on capitalism, and the pro-capitalist painstakingly refutes the charges point-by-point.

This is a futile strategy, because its best-case scenario is that observers hold the absence of a negative view about capitalism.

But why not make the positive case? Why not showcase the amazingly positive nature of capitalism, both its ingenious inner-workings and its glorious results?

If we frame the debate on our terms, the anti-capitalist side clearly gets exposed for what it is–an anti-freedom movement that seeks to interfere with and expropriate individuals whose lives would be much better without the anti-capitalists’ coercion.

Taking a positive approach to defending capitalism is one of the chief virtues of Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu’s must-read The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet.

[Read more →]

July 16, 2012   6 Comments