Monday, June 6, 2011

"big picture agriculture" Makes its Second Appearance on NYTs Dot Earth

This weekend, the NYTs ran a big agricultural article by Justin Gillis titled "A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself." The article is worth reading, but I detected the usual MSM sensationalism long on alarmist rhetoric and short on fact. There was just so much relevant information left out. None-the-less, the article derived a great deal of attention and mentions.

I was thrilled to see Dot Earth's Andrew Revkin cover the article by including a link to my post, "The Perils of International Farmland Investing." See Revkin's "Farming in a Challenging Climate."

Under his post, Revkin wrote this comment:
Roger Pielke, Jr., has a more critical view of the article, particularly its effort to cast climate change as a dominant concern: Here's his opening paragraph:

Today's New York Times has an article by Justin Gillis on global food production that strains itself to the breaking point to make a story fit a narrative. The narrative, of course, is that climate change "is helping to destabilize the food system." The problem with the article is that the data that it presents don't support this narrative.
I would have to agree with my fellow-Boulderite, Pielke. Don't get me wrong, on days when I read the weather headlines I could let myself become fearful, too, but we need to maintain some equanimity before drawing over-arching conclusions. (I try to keep a running list of agriculture/climate change study reports under the "climate change" tab at the top of this blog.)

Even more exciting for this humble blogger was Revkin's message on his personal blog:

And, finally, I see that Gillis followed up his prominent doomer article with this, "Reverend Malthus and the Future of Food" which I see as a more realistic viewpoint.

Yet, Gillis still fails to mention the U.S.'s corn ethanol policy which was politically driven to support corn prices due to ongoing agricultural overproduction and he fails to mention the adaptability of the human diet if climate change leads to less global production of corn, soy, and beef. Those promoted crops of today could be substituted with more drought resilient ones of sorghum, millet, dry beans, wheat, and hopefully, the most resilient of seeds. For meat, milk and cheese eaters, goats could be the answer in an agricultural world which is climate-stressed. On the doomer side of the argument, he fails to mention the elephant-in-the-room "peak oil."

I've made the case for increasing global agricultural commodity production quite a few times on this site since the first of this year here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for examples.
K. McDonald


  1. I read the "Reverend Malthus" piece by Gills and agree it is pretty good.

    One thing he gets to at the end, which I believe is the key point, is a list of all the factors that need to come together properly to deal with this issue. Anybody can site a single innovation that is required and suggest that we surely can do that. What is daunting is the sheer number of problems that need to be solved, almost simultaneously. And each one of these requires substantial capital of different types to work out, often coordinated between public and private sectors.

    If you read the Limits to Growth work this was exactly their point. There was never a single factor that limited total production, but a combination of limits, each one appearing soft on its own, but the totality just becomes overwhelming and the system begins a steady (or rapid) decline in output.

    This is why I get tired of the "well you don't appreciate human ingenuity" line. An actual reading of the works of some of these neo-Malthusians shows that they do appreciate ingenuity. In fact, it is the great problem solving abilities of people that bring so many potential constraints to the forefront nearly all at once. It becomes a whack-a-mole game in the end, but saying when the end will be with precision is impossible.

    Unfortunately, what we tend to get is the "but they were wrong and always will be" response, and while this may be true in certain specific cases that is not really relevant. The main argument is that the system will solve growth problems until there are just too many all at once. Not appreciating this fundamental nature of the socio-economic system is the dangerous bit, as we go stridently and blindly ahead, and up, and towards more progress, etc.

  2. Jason,
    I always love your comments and usually find myself in very close agreement if not learning something as well.

    Something that resonated with me in what you wrote was your comment about capital required to solve the problems and this continues to be one of my main concerns. Even that might be overcome by government policies in the case of agriculture, however. CC is simply a wild card right now which could trump all if the worst comes true. But, like you I cannot make predictions, because if I did, I'd be wrong.

    Your comment implies that you are a "fast crash doomer" but maybe I've read too much into what you wrote.

    One thing that is commonly missed in doomer outlooks for the future, however, is that many see future conditions as the same plus failures taking place. But, conditions will change as we adapt to those failures or limits. And, technology cannot be predicted, thus, another wildcard. Not that I'm in the "technology will save us camp" but in the "maybe or what if" camp.

    I really enjoyed reading this at Dot Earth and recommend it, about microbiologist RenĂ© Dubos, A ‘Despairing Optimist’ Considered Anew.

  3. Jason,
    I also think this guy might be right, along the same lines of thinking....

    But Gilding is actually an eco-optimist. As the impact of the imminent Great Disruption hits us, he says, “our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades.”

    See NYTs: The Earth is Full.

    This is not to say there won't be tons of hardships and human tragedies along the way.

    As for technology, the reason I am optimistic is in a Kurzweilian sense, because of the computer potential we have today which we never had before.

    And the potential for physics discoveries. Seems we're due for some new breakthroughs in physics.

  4. I would say that the conditions are in place to support a "fast crash" scenario. But the reason for such a crash would most likely be due to social norms, not resource or technology constraints. The ability to regulate financial and trade systems in the context of debt defaults, currency valuation gyrations, and spot political upheaval in an interconnected world could lead to a freeze of global trade very quickly. This truly almost happened in 2008. What we have done since then is extend and pretend, but the willingness of most people to avoid taking the problem seriously (I mean actually recognizing the debt levels are unsupportable and a kind of jubilee is needed) actually keeps it from being an immediate disaster.

    Most of the trouble I see near term is thus a mismatch between artificially inflated demand due to social expectations, especially the claims made by debt instruments, and the ability to make the substantial profits required to pay those debts.

    Medium term it is the phenomenon of rising expectations due to globalization and what this does to political stability when these expectations can't be met--due to resource constraints, especially cheap energy.

    Long-term it is the risk of climate change and massive wars, etc., if a melt down of social glue occurs.

    I think it possible that something really novel comes out of physics research, but I have been hearing about breakthroughs around the corner for so many years that I wouldn't place bets on this. It is just another potential wild card that makes me very uncertain, but I am the kind of person that is comfortable not really knowing, or pretending to know.

    One thing that seriously hampers any uptake of new technology is culture. In the US we are early adopters of a lot of stuff. But much of the world is still very tribal. And while some of these folks readily take to things like cell phones and computers, there are also stories of populations avoiding technologies because of mistrust and the perceived impact on traditions. In the US the Amish would be an example of this. And now we even have whole sub groups in the US that because of belief systems avoid things like vaccines or think GMOs cause every disease known to humans. I just bring this all up to say that even with some potential for a technocratic solution human beliefs and cultures are amazingly diverse and in a world that needs to come to some potential agreement on what needs to be done, quickly, and at full scale, that diversity is likely to be a major impediment.

  5. Regarding Gilding and that NYT-Friedman article....

    It reminds me of the work of other Australians, Phillip Sutton and David Spratt.

    They also say that nothing will be done until a crisis, then we will come together, and here's what can be done in that context.

    This has a bit of the "Shock Doctrine" to it, which was conceptualized for a whole 'nother reason.