Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner?

We need research to feed a larger population without plowing the whole planet.

Who’s coming for dinner? The answer, in case you’re wondering, is “two billion more people.”  That’s the population increase predicted for 2050.  How are we going to feed those people?

One method is to cut down a lot of the world’s remaining forests and plow the world’s remaining grasslands. That’s a bad approach environmentally: it will release a lot of carbon and destroy a huge amount of biodiversity.  If we don’t go that direction, we need to be able to feed the additional population while using very little more land than today.  That means using land more efficiently — for example, feeding people grain directly rather than using the grain to feed cattle.  But it also means improvements in crop yields and in the nutritional content of foods.  Current trends in yields are not going to produce those improvements.  (If you’re looking for more details, look at the Economist’s issue on the subject.)

What that means is that we need a lot more agricultural research.  Yet research funding has been declining in recent years, as shown by this chart:

ag research trends

Agricultural research isn’t exactly sexy — it’s not as cool as finding new Earth-like planets or as appealing as medical research.  And environmentalists, by and large, aren’t big fans of large-scale farming to begin with, and tend to reject use of some techniques like GMOs to increase yields.  But saving rainforests and controlling climate change are more important than these First World concerns. We urgently need more agricultural research to find sustainable ways to produce the huge amount of extra food we’re going to need by mid-century.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, this is a completely disinterested argument.  Berkeley doesn’t even have an ag. school.  Our ag. school ran away from home and grew up to become UC Davis.

Ag. research isn’t sexy, but the environmental case is compelling — not to mention the food needs of those two billion people.

 

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Reader Comments

5 Replies to “Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner?”

  1. Dan, you wrote: “saving rainforests and controlling climate change are more important than these First World concerns. We urgently need more agricultural research to find sustainable ways to produce the huge amount of extra food we’re going to need by mid-century.”

    All “we” need to do to feed the world’s population, is to step back and allow free people to develop the technology and the means necessary. Protect property rights and free markets and free and resourceful people will show you how it is done.

    The reason that the world can now support some 7 billion people, is that we didn’t rely on collective solutions to hunger. Had governments been put in charge, billions would likely have starved to death.

    We the taxpayers don’t need to fund agricultural research. We simply need to allow it. That probably means most of the funding won’t go to academic institutions. That means that most of the research will be privately funded, and a lot of it might not look attractive or properly focused to “academic experts, bureaucrats, or politicians,” but just stay out of the way, allow creative people to create, and watch in wonder.

    Have you noticed the disruptive advances in all sorts of technology, how our lives are changing faster and faster in ways our parents and grandparents would never have believed? Stand back and allow people to feed people, through consensual and mutually beneficial action. This is not a challenge which requires – or can tolerate – political interference or direction.

    1. Dan, as Will and Ariel Durant concluded after 40 years of historical research “When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change of change.”

      Considering our increasingly out of control problems with resources, environment, population, violence, inequality, etc. are we in the Decline or Fall stage today?

  2. Hi Dan,

    I missed taking any of your classes while at Boalt. At the time, I thought I wanted to work in commercial litigation as opposed to the thrilling and rewarding work I perform today in environmental philanthropy. However, I have been a regular follower of this blog and find myself agreeing with you and Jonathan Zasloff more frequently than not. This is not one of those times.

    When you say “environmentalists, by and large, aren’t big fans of large-scale farming to begin with, and tend to reject use of some techniques like GMOs to increase yields. But saving rainforests and controlling climate change are more important than these First World concerns,” I am incredibly confused. The proliferation of GMOs, mostly to produce pesticide resistant crops, has led to such unfettered use of pesticides that biodiversity is indeed being challenged. Pollinator die-off is a pressing issue that impacts all humanity. And I believe that the people whose health is threatened by the increasing amount of pesticides in foods and potable water; the harm that big ag nutrient loading does to streams and fish; not to mention the health of the workers who grow those foods and are exposed to pesticides–many of whom are poor and trying to escape developing world problems–would also disagree with you.

    Thanks for your continued thought leadership. . . but I have to say, this post was off the mark for me.

    1. Hello Rashad,

      Are you suggesting that using GMOs to increase yields is possible only by using GMO’s to mostly produce pesticide resistant crops?

      If not, perhaps you and Dan agree on using GMOs to increase yields while banning harmful use of pesticides (including harmful uses of pesticides facilitated by pesticide resistant GMO crops).

      Cheers,
      Wade

      1. Hi Wade,

        To my knowledge, the vast majority of GMOs currently in use for increasing ag yields feature genetic modifications that imbue the subject plants with resistance to pesticides and herbicides. And yes, the increased use of potentially toxic chemicals to increase yields is my personal primary concern with GMOs. Perhaps you’ve seen the recent study in The Lancet Oncology linking the world’s mostly widely used herbicide, glyphosate, with increased cancer risk? Or the study by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that, in one specific U.S. state they studied, 75% of air and water samples contained glyphosate? That study was published in Enviromental Toxicology and Chemistry.

        There are plenty of other concerns around GMOs–including the sheer breadth of some bio patents; the production of plants that cannot self-reproduce due to genetic modification; the splicing of genes, not only within a taxonomic kingdom, but across kingdoms (e.g. placing animal genes in plants); et cetera. Smart people can definitely debate these other issues, often through the lens of ethics. However, the toxic pesticide and herbicide issue is foremost for me. And based on what we know about pesticides and herbicides, there is little room for honest debate there.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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