Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Shangri-La And A Hungry Planet

An opinion piece in the February 2nd Wall Street Journal recently caught my attention. It called for a re-start of the Green Revolution. Why?

The U.N.’s food price index has hit an all-time high. Food price hikes are widely understood to be a trigger of Egyptian upheavals in a country that imports a large share of its grain. Some blame Ben Bernanke. Some blame the Chinese for gobbling up too much of the world’s resources. Not enough attention is focused on the forces of stagnation loose in our world. Agricultural output has been falling behind population growth for almost two decades, and so has productivity.”

What does the author single out for blame for both the long term and short term effects? Mediterranean (a la Greece and Italy) style shielding of small-scale industry from competition in the form of now unsuccessful efforts to ban the use of gene splicing in alfalfa to protect organic farmers! The problem, I would argue, is bigger than that, but he makes a convincing case that such behavior is a part of the problem – a problem that is getting ever more frightening.

Now, the Green Revolution was the increase in mankind’s food security through the use of new technologies that included hybridized grains, infrastructure improvements, and, most especially, artificial inputs that are derived from fossil fuels. It was epitomized by the IR8 strain of rice that, with those artificial inputs, produced ten times the rice compared to rice grown from traditional efforts. Dubbed the “miracle rice”, IR8 brought India from the brink of famine to a new status as a major rice exporter.

What is termed the Green Revolution is really just a small part of a larger revolution that is still occurring: the Fossil Fuel Revolution. The Fossil Fuel Revolution has done a great deal to promote human rights, minority rights and child and animal welfare since the human and animal energies that formerly were a necessary input to virtually all human productivity have been replaced first by coal and later by oil and natural gas. How do I justify this theory? The fact that an unprecedented and extremely rapid rise in rights coincided with an equally unprecedented and rapid flowering of labor saving technology that enabled the developed world to free children first from cottage industry and later from the mills, mines and farms, putting them in school.

Coal was first used extensively in England. In 1700, 5/6 of all coal mined was in England. By the early 1800s, England passed the first laws limiting child labor and “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” the first such treatises, were published before the century was over. Just as coal saved the trees of Europe, the distillation of kerosene from petroleum in the 1850s* saved the whales . . . and, it turbocharged workers’ rights. Less than ten years later the United States would be fighting its biggest war in history over the legality of slavery, and by 1900 most of the world had abolished it. Coincidences? Perhaps. But follow the trajectory of labor rights, the shortening of the workweek, and the empowerment of women and minorities, and you will find the same clear correlation I have. Simply put, humans were freed from many of the most labor-intensive parts of life by fossil fuels and as a result, had the capacity for the change that eventually occurred. Eventually, even the horse was freed. If you have a better explanation, please let me know.

We tend to focus entirely on the bad elements of fossil fuels these days -- the pollution, even roping in the unsavory business practices of the Rockefellers and the Sheiks, while totally taking for granted all that we have because of fossil fuels. The Time, the Freedom, and the lack of Want. Meanwhile, we talk as if there existed viable full-scale replacements for fossil fuels when there are not. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking to reduce and replace our fossil fuels consumption; what it does mean is that fossil fuels should be given their due instead of thought of as Original Sin.

I'm not trying to say that fossil fuels have no problems. Too often in discussions about complex matters, advocates want to push the subject material into easily defined Black Hat and White Hat actors. Sure, there are trade-offs to using fossil fuels and we should continue to use technology to mitigate, reduce or replace them as we can. But it is technology that will enable the next phase of human development, not wishful thinking.

As often happens with us, two things have occurred because of fossil fuels bounty: 1. Huge population growth resulting from the benefits of the technology and the ability to grow substantially more food. We’ve become victims of our own success. 2. We don’t appreciate what we’ve got; in many ways the developed world’s middle class live much like the wealthy of centuries ago. Certainly a far larger percentage of people live in relative comfort than ever before.

Oh, and a lot of us are getting fat -- another luxury problem people didn't used to have.

But, America, we might have a problem. There are several corners of the intellectual world warning that we cannot rely as much as we have on fossil fuels. The Big Ideas out there are of course that we are changing the climate (for the worse) and that we will run out of fossil fuel.

If either of these ideas is true, we are in big trouble. Simply put, we are nowhere NEAR having the alternatives to our present food system. Talk of switching from annuals to perennials for our caloric base, moving to entirely non fossil fueled sources of nitrogen, and anything else, leaves a huge, scary deficit in the equation that equals the calories seven billion people need to survive, not to mention the three billion more people expected to be around by 2050.

But this I know for sure, meeting these challenges will come out of human ingenuity and the new technology that results -- just as it did with the development of fossil fuels and genetic engineering of seeds.

So, I am willing to meet both the environmental and the resources Malthusians half way; the costs may reach a crisis point. But I am not willing to seriously entertain a back-to-the-land “food democracy” of small-scale farmers the kind that populated the plains before the dust bowl, nor a return to a mythical “golden age of agriculture” where man lived “in harmony with nature” as potential solutions. Small organic farms as a food source for the masses were not only famously unreliable, the tilling necessary tended to make anything larger than a garden prone to significant erosion and environmental impact.

Some thinkers have focused on a very creative way to revolutionize agriculture: crossbreeding the annual crops we farm to survive with unproductive perennial varieties, or breed perennials until they get something as productive as wheat. This would solve a lot of our agricultural environmental problems (to which organic farming contributes), but because they are unwilling to use new genetic modification techniques, even the perennials proponents admit they will need decades before they reach a breakthrough.

Given that amount of time, other solutions may be developed first, or one or another Malthusian crisis may arrive. In the meantime, I’ll take the proven incremental productivity gains of GM crops and advances in fertilizer application and utilization. To denigrate the capacity of these technologies in light of no other readily available alternative is like those who demonize the oil industry -- but drive a car to the protest.

So, we don’t need a “new” Green Revolution, we just need to not abandon the one that is continuing in the present day. The most productivity gains are currently being made with gene splicing and more effective applications of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicides. These right now are the Low Hanging Fruit. We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good -- and too often sustainable agriculture proponents seem to take that approach.

So, who is against this? A lot of folks. They often think they are taking a holistic view of things, but their thinking is clouded by dreams of “food democracy,” and Paradise Refound. It may be true that large-scale agronomists will need to look more closely at how natural ecosystems flourish to lessen environmental impacts, but a return to the pre-dust bowl slogans of “Every Man A Landlord” would herald a disaster if followed through on. Why must the solution be to abandon technology which has made life freer, easier and given us the time to pursue things like literature, art and organics?

It is hard to debate seriously the facts with someone once they have got “religion.” One must wade through all sorts of high-minded platitudes, (“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings." says Masanobu Fukuoka) to confront them with the facts that demand some kind of realistic compromising “that sounds nice, how are we going to feed seven billion people with this philosophy?” Yet even then, there is never any guarantee you will get anywhere.

What I have learned from engaging in many discussions on these issues with folks that often disagree with me, is that context is incredibly important. If you can place the current set of circumstances in its proper context, and informed by facts that can be as close to objective as possible, you have a whole new opportunity to find some meeting of the minds.

Technology, whether it be in the form of a new fuel or a new seed, has been and will continue to be critical for meeting sustainability challenges. Turning our back on it out of some false sense of superiority or glorification of the past, would be a terrible mistake, especially in light of news that China, the world's largest wheat producer may be facing a major drought.

Let the progress in renewables continue, while we remember that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

*This liquid is the future wealth of the country, it's the wellbeing and prosperity of its inhabitants, it's a new source of income for the poor, and a new branch of industry which shall bear plentiful fruit. - Ignacy Ɓukasiewicz (1854)

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