Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Resource constraints & vegetarianism

Yesterday's AFR contained a fascinating article by Chris Haskins, 'Was Malthus right, after all' reprinted from the UK magazine Prospect. I cannot find a complete online version but it is the original article is worth chasing up if you are interrested in world food supply issues and climate change. (Update: Reader 'whyisitso' found this link to the article. Thanks).

Haskins' argument is that amazing events are occurring in world grain markets because of accelerated economic development in countries like China. Prices of grains are soaring even though world population is growing only moderately because millions in the developing world can now afford to eat meat - the average Chinese eats 30% more than 5 years ago and grain-feed cattle eat huge amounts of grain. In addition there have been poor grain harvests around the world and Western countries are subsidising farmers to switch from food to renewable energy crops. (Update: Colleague Jim Bugden found this interesting data. Thanks).

With global populations increasing through to at least 2050 some of these trends can be expected to continue. Land supplies are close to fully utilised and climate change will make vlife more difficult for farmers. Major technological advances - for example, improving the resiliance of crops to temperature extremes - to improve the productivity of existing land need to be achieved to offset these trends. The Malthusian spectre of increasing misery can be offset but these technological advances are called for. In addition the case for growing crops as renewable sources of energy needs to be reviewed.

Haskins suggests a provocative program of reform:

'The most virtuous and responsible step of all would be to become vegetarian. About three quarters of the world's wheat, maize and soya is fed to animals who then convert this, very inefficiently, into meat for us to eat. Something else to bear in mind is that our consumption of milk products maintains demand for millions of cows, each of which, through its burping and farting, does more environmental damage than the average family car'.

Economic factors will tend to drive these sorts of trends anyway as people adapt their consumption to increased relative prices for animal protein. This switch would be accentuated by fart taxes on flatulent livestock.

I made much the same points last week on energy use trends in developing countries. These will adversely impact on the global environment even though they realise important development objectives. Again relative price trends will tend to offset some of these effects.

Note that in a globalised economy increased energy and food prices will impact on the poor globally. The implications of being poor in China will be much the same as being poor in the US. My bet - and Haskins agrees - is that this will lead to a surge in demands for protectionism that will hurt us all.

Finally note that food supply issues are impacting on climate change policies both directly - agriculture will take a direct negative hit in areas such as the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia as rainfall diminishes and becomes more erratic and because, with economic development, people will demand more crops simply to provide increased animal protein and renewable fuels.

The Haskins article is an excellent read - I'll probably set it for my environmental economics students!

Update: This excellent piece from NYT (19/1/08) develops similar themes.

5 comments:

whyisitso said...

http://www.businessday.co.za/weekender/article.aspx?ID=BD4A676020

whyisitso said...

Oops I forgot. You can't just post a link into this comment box.

http://www.businessday.co.za/weekender/

article.aspx?ID=BD4A676020

hc said...

whyisitso, Thanks for that - I inserted into the post.

Tejvan Pettinger said...

I agree with the idea of encouraging vegetarianism. The first thing that should stop is the subsidisation of meat production. In the EU we spend far too much on subsidising farming practise that are no benefit to the economy.

(Good blog btw)

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