Food Myths, Green
Lies and Journalists
By Gerard Jackson
No. 43, 30 June-6 July 1997
Melbourne's Herald Sun filled its Saturday liftout (31/5/97) with green horror stories of impending mass starvation, global warming, melting ice caps, etc., masquerading as the result of an environmental 'investigation' headed by the Kristin Owen. This scaremongering propaganda gave us such gems as: "It would require at least three planet earths to supply everyone with the amount of goods and energy used by the average Australian". This is the kind of irresponsible drivel that informed opinion treats with justifiable contempt.
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The New Australian will reply to Owen's green nonsense, starting with her baseless claim that the planet will eventually face disastrous food shortages. Owen, of course, will be given equal space to reply. This offer is genuine even though we believe it will not be accepted.
Owen relied on Lester R. Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, for so-called facts to support her article's contention that worlwide food shortages will eventually emerge. Before I refute Brown and Owen's views it is necessary to first broaden readers' understanding of events by giving them some background information on Lester Brown and his institute.
The World Watch Institute is notorious in America for arguing that it should not become the "breadbasket" (Lester Brown) for developing countries, despite America's huge and expanding capacity for food production. But what can we expect from an organisation that attacked the "Green Revolution" (made possible by the genetic work of Norman Borlaug) that did so much to increase the Third World's agricultural output. Brown's institute complained that Borlaug's work made these countries "agriculture dependent on fossil fuels, like our agriculture" and is responsible for the introduction of fertiliser and pesticides.
So, Miss Owen, according to Brown and his fellow humanitarians at the institute not only is it wrong for America to export food to feed the Third World's growing population, it is also wrong for these countries to use modern technology and science to increase their agricultural output. I guess that only leaves mass starvation. But in that case, this might, in Brown's benighted view, bring about the "revolution" he publicly craves for, as well as creating more room for the Herrenvolk.
Let us now do what Owen did not do and that is take a look at Brown's forecasting record. He wrote that since 1971 the world's grain output had barely kept pace with its population growth. But actual food production, including grain, has been steadily rising per person for decades. Brown then argued that food prices must therefore inevitably rise. Yet the historical trend for food prices for the last 170 years or more has been down, corresponding to the steady increase in food output. Of course, if you ignore the long run trend and select a short run variation showing falling output and rising prices (a typical doomster tactic) this can be used to argue that food shortages are imminent. It is also a dishonest use of statistics. What matters is the long run trend and not the variations around it. And the trend is clear to those who care to look.
In 1960 the world had 1500 million acres allocated to grain production. Productivity has increased that much during the last 37 years that the world still only needs 1500 million acres for grain production. We owe this achievement to a 134 per cent increase in agricultural productivity. Without this productivity increase the world would have had to dedicate 2.5 billion acres to grain production.
Miss Owen warns us that the world's population will increase from the present 5.8 billion to 8 billion by 2025, land will be degraded and water and land becoming increasingly scarce. We are obviously facing disaster. Yet J. H. Ausbel (American Scientist March-April 1996) estimated that if world productivity increased on average by 5 tons per hectare (2.5 acres) then 10 billion people could enjoy an American diet (6,000 calories per day) on only 75 per cent of today's farmland. If the average rose to 8 tons (the average for Irish wheat and American corn) then an area the size of Australia could be withdrawn from agricultural production. Regardless of what greens and their media mates are saying this process is happening right now. And it is entirely due to science and technology.
As countries like China and India become rich enough to adopt Western agricultural techniques their agricultural productivity will rise enormously while the amount of energy inputs for agriculture fall (sic). So instead of the world heading for a future dominated by food shortages, as claimed by Kristin Owen, it is in danger of heading for a future struggling with food gluts that could drive down food prices. The only hint of this that Owen gave was a brief sentence produced by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization con-tradicting Brown's disaster fantasies. (The quote was nothing more than a cheap attempt at giving the article the appearance of balance). After that, it was still down hill all the way.
Quoting Brown again (generous quoting saves having to think), Owen brought us to grain reserves and their alleged dangerously low levels. But grain reserves have been one of Brown's little obsessions for the last 25 years or so. Three things have to be considered: (1) reserves are no indicator of agricultural capacity and it is wrong to insinuate otherwise; (2) falling reserves may be no more than the result of increased efficiency in grain storage and transportation; (3) reserves vary through time.
She quotes Worldwatch's assertion that since 1945 about 19.5 million square kilometres have been lost to food production. This is equivalent in area to Canada, Alaska and the conterminous United States combined. In other words, the whole of North America or an area equaling two China's. (Compare this assertion with the productivity figures and the amount of land used for grain production that I gave early on). Yet she made no attempt to produce a shred of evidence in support of this assertion. One should have thought, however, that the sheer size of the figure would have alerted Owen to the possibility that something was amiss. But that would have required a little thought and perhaps, in her case, a little thought would have been too painful.
Worldwatch has been making claims about soil destruction in America for decades. In 1982 Nobel Prize winner Theodore Schultz pointed out that there had been two national soil surveys (1934 and 1977) and neither provided any support for Worldwatch's allegations of soil destruction. Moreover, the view that soil erosion is always a catastrophe is plausible but erroneous, something that Theodore Schultz stressed. If Owen had bothered to do her homework she would have learnt these facts.
Worldwatch and Lester Brown have been thoroughly discredited. That any journalist should use them as reliable sources of information on the environment is a thorough disgrace. Unfortunately much modern 'journalism' seems more concerned with peddling ideology than doing honest research and objective fact finding.
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