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Monday, March 21, 2011

Food Prices Rising: Population Growth Reaching the Threshold Point?

According to USA Today, by mid-March in 2011 the World Bank’s food index had soared 29% from its level just the previous January and was a mere 3% below its 2008 peak. From March in 2010, Corn had increased 52%, sugar, 60%, soybeans, 41%, and wheat 24 percent.  The paper reports that the surge in food prices had many causes, including 1) rising population, which means increased demand for food, 2) speculators, who bid up commodity prices to artificial heights unrelated to supply, 3) soaring oil prices, which increase resource costs to the farmers and transporters, 4) trade policies, which become restrictive when shortages arise within a country (increasing the price on the world market), and, ironically, 5) improved standards of living in emerging nations, as new middle class consumers buy more meat. Of all of these factors, I contend that the rising population is the most fundamental, followed up by the related factor of oil.

A few months into 2011, the world's population stood at 6.8 billion, more than double the three billion in 1960. For a person of 50 years, the world's population had doubled in his or her lifetime. Thomas Malthus, the early 19th-century scholar who proposed that eventually, the world population would exceed the Earth’s ability to feed everyone, has been consistently ignored as India and China in particular have continued to grow in population at unsustainable rates (especially India--China having a quasi-one-child policy that has moderated its increase). Dan Seiver, a financial economist at San Diego State University, points to the green revolution as still being implemented in parts of the world; he is thus not yet ready to concede that the Mathusian thesis has arrived. However, he discounts the relatively high population growth rate; the increased efficiency or yield from the continued dissemination of "green" technology would have very great to outweigh the fixed (and in fact constricting) constraint of the world’s fertile land area that is used to grow food. In fact, according to the World Bank’s Hassan Zaman, the percentage of the U.S. corn crop that was used to make ethanol went from 31% in 2008 to more than 40% projected in the 2010-2011 growing season. While it is true that unlike the supply of oil in the ground, the land is being consumed, it can indeed be overused if it is not allowed to lie fallow, for example, to rest for a growing season. As the growing population exerts more and more pressure on the land to produce more and more, the land, like a horse pushed too far on a long journey on a hot August day, will tire and slow down. This would tend to happen just as the world needs each agricultural acre more. Therefore, if we as a species are unwise and expedient now in how we manage our land, our descendants will pay for our selfishness later.

I contend that it is in our interest as a species to see that our population size is managed toward a steady state rather than as a maximizing variable (i.e., schizogenic). In fact, we have a right and obligation as one body to see that our various limbs are coordinated such that none engages in hypertrophy. That is to say, the whole has the right to protect its viability by arresting excessive growth in one of the parts. That much of the world's population growth takes place in the developing world does not mean that this right, or obligation, of the world is somehow a plot by the developed countries to oppress the poorer countries. In fact, much of the pain of the higher food prices is in the developing world rather than in the industrialized countries, so it is in the interest of the developing countries to accede to the world’s demand that their population growth be stopped.

While the effect of higher food prices is modest in the developed world, 50% or more of a family budget goes toward food in many emerging markets. American consumers spend about 9% of their income on food, and another 3% for dining out. The difference is not because food is more expensive in the developing world; rather, the percentage is so high because the typical income there is so low. “For many people who spend two-thirds or three-quarters of their income on food, even small price increases disrupt normal routine,” says Hassan Zaman, lead economist for the World Bank in poverty reduction and equity. “They start sacrificing non-food items, such as clothing, and then start eating less.” Indeed, the rising cost of food has been one factor in the protests in the Middle East that were not so pristinely "pro-democracy" as the media represented. 

USA Today reports, for example, that "(w)hen Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in Tunisia in December [of 2010], it wasn’t because he was yearning to vote. It was because he couldn’t feed his family and police had confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was trying to sell." Although perhaps not focused on gaining a vote, however, Bouazizi had had enough of police-state tyranny so his protest was not merely economic. Perhaps the economic, at least when it manifests in vast inequalities supported by an infrastructure tilted by powerful vested interests rather than by a differential in talent and effort, is inherently political.

In short, developing countries should be amenable to population control even if the directives come from international organizations. Such countries should not resist the world acting as one body just because much of correction needed for sustainable human living on Earth would take place in the developing countries.  We as a species can no longer afford to be petty or partisan with such matters as concern our species' continued existence. If the world does not act as one mind over its body and engage in some much needed weight-control, the patient will grow too big and soon die of a heart attack. In the end, it is not a developed/developing contest, but, rather, a decision for all of us: are we to continue growing like a virus or are we better than that?  If we continue to refuse to take responsibility for our species as a whole, perhaps the cock roach will deserve to survive us.

It is ironic that we vaunt ourselves as being made in the image of God while our species refuses to step up to the plate even to manage itself so it can survive. Many of the world's religions teach us to submit to something greater--to something wholly other. It is more difficult, it would seem, for us to submit to the good of our species as a whole, even as we as a species run up against the semi-permeable membranes that delimit us on our planet in so many ways.

I contend that we are getting closer Malthus’ "the threshold point." Future population growth (and the added consumption, such as of food and energy, that is inevitable with such growth) could have dramatic implications for human life. The previous growth did not have such implications, at least  with respect to the world as a whole, so that growth was qualitatively different than that which we shall face if we continue to add billions to the global human population.  This qualitative distinction is precisely what we as a species have been having such a difficult time in grasping. To the chagrin of financial chartists, who try to divine stock movements in the future based on past trends, what was the case yesterday may not be the case tomorrow anymore. We got hits of this when the global financial system almost collapsed in September of 2008 and the Japanese nuclear plant almost had a meltdown in March of 2011. There being no financial market or no Japan would have been a wake-up call to us all concerning the assumptions we all implicitly make about there being a tomorrow like today. The sun may rise again, but we may not be around to watch it. Being made in God’s image does not guarantee us a seat. To grasp this vital point requires moving one's eyes from the rising prices on the shelves at our favorite local grocery store to consider the big picture with respect to the human race on planet Earth.  To act on this point requires significant reform of international organizations, such that they would be more than the sum of their parts.

If coordination between countries such as through the U.N. is not sufficient to arrest growth in the worst offenders, a transfer of a degree of sovereignty adequate for the tasks needed to avert reaching the threshold point beyond which the Earth can no longer support the human race is needed. This is particularly true if the worst offenders do not have the political will to correct themselves even if doing so is in their own interests. All too often, continuing in the status quo is too convenient to be resisted with enough energy to reverse the entropy even if correction is urgently needed. Lest the fear of a world government or federation enable the insufficient coordination to be presumed as the best we can do, the governmental sovereignty that is transferred should be accompanied with a design of checks and balances such that political consolidation does not occur. This is not, in other words, an argument for one world government. Rather, it is an observation that the human race as a species as reached a point where the species itself needs manage itself with respect to the planet as a constraint. Otherwise, the continued viability of our species will be in jeopardy. The fear of nuclear war during the last half of the twentieth century was just the dawning of this recognition. The question now is whether we act on our new awareness and situation with respect to the Earth.

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Source: http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2011-03-17-food-costs-world-hunger.htm