December 2010

Great Leap Forward Famine.  The New York Times has an op-ed piece with some inside details of the government's role in the worst famine in  history.  “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”  Mao-Tse Tung, Shanghai, March 25, 1959.

2010 World Food Situation.  The Financial Times has extensive coverage, though a main menu page here. 

September 2010

Better Information and Public Exhortations have no impact on Dietary Choices.   According to this recent report by Center for Disease Control  

Minimum Wage Laws cause Unemployment in South Africa.  The New York Times reports on high  unemployment in South Africa.

Fear of Future Food Shortages  is fueling a "twenty-first century land rush" in which foreign investors are buying up land in developing countries,  according to recent research by FAO  and the World Bank.  Some of that research is described here.

Aid to Ethiopia.    Aid failed to stop famine in Ethiopia according to a new book,  reviewed here.    "Famine and Foreigners"  by Peter Gill.

Brazil's Agricultural Miracle.  The Economist reports.  With a deeper look at the cerrado here.  


How the Loss of Property Rights Caused Zimbabwe's Economic Collapse.  From Craig Richardson,  writing at Cato Institute:    "the fertility of the land wasn’t determined just by rainfall or quality of the soil. Although communal lands tended to be in drier areas, many were directly adjacent to commercial farms or in high-rainfall areas. In addition, there were commercial farms in very arid parts of Zimbabwe. Yet in nearly all cases, the communal areas were dry and scorched, whereas the commercial lands were green and lush."

posted May 7, 2010 at 3  p.m


Gendercide.   Where are the missing 100 million girls?   asks the Economist.  

posted March 10, 2 010 at 2 p.m.


Somalia Food Aid Distribution Problems.  New York Times reports that as much as half of donated food is diverted by corruption to politically connected individuals.

posted March 10, 2 010 at 2: p.m.


Poverty in Africa.  Two recent studies indicate that economic growth in Africa has succeeded in reducing poverty.  Alwyn Young of Columbia University concludes in "The African Growth Miracle": 

Measures of real consumption based upon the ownership of durable goods, the quality of housing, the health and mortality of children, the education of youth and the allocation of female time in the household indicate that sub-Saharan living standards have, for the past two decades, been growing in excess of 3 percent per annum, i.e. more than three times the rate indicated in international data sets.

Pinkovskiy and Sala-i-Martin conclude in "African Poverty is Falling -- Much Faster than You Think" :

The conventional wisdom that Africa is not reducing poverty is wrong.... [F]or the period 1970-2006 [, w]e show that: (1) African poverty is falling and is falling rapidly; (2) if present trends continue, the poverty Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people with incomes less than one dollar a day will be achieved on time; (3) the growth spurt that began in 1995 decreased African income inequality instead of increasing it; (4) African poverty reduction is remarkably general: it cannot be explained by a large country or even by a single set of countries possessing some beneficial geographical or historical characteristic.

posted March 7, 2010 10 a.m.


Millenium Village Project.   The New York Times has been carrying a series of blog reports from Kararo, a Millenium Village Project in Ethiopia. 

The Project’s approach toward fertilizer subsidies is a good case in point. In 2005, all fertilizer was given away, leading to a significant increase in food production. Fertilizer subsidies were then progressively rolled back; by last year, only 50% of the cost was covered. For the 2009 growing season, the project tried something new: farmers were given loans for fertilizer, but they are expected to pay back the full cost plus interest when the harvest comes.  For many Koraro farmers, this is a daunting challenge. ... Many farmers... have chosen to scale back their farms, thereby requiring less fertilizer, rather than face enormous debts.

posted February 25, 2010 at 2:50 p.m.


Green Revolution in India.   Two recent articles discuss the Green Revolution in India. 


The Wall Street Journal goes with "Green Revolution in India Wilts as subsidies Backfire."    "India has been providing farmers with heavily subsidized fertilizer for more than three decades. The overuse of one type—urea—is so degrading the soil that yields on some crops are falling.  ...  The government has subsidized other fertilizers besides urea. In budget crunches, subsidies on those fertilizers have been reduced or cut, but urea's subsidy has survived. That's because urea manufacturers form a powerful lobby, and farmers are most heavily reliant on this fertilizer, making it a political hot potato to raise the price."


The New York Times Letter from India opines,  "Agriculture Left to Die at India's Peril."    "Agriculture in this area, and in much of India, is dying. The village economy is in crisis, assailed by migration to the cities, decades of ecological neglect, and the growing unsustainability of farming. ... President Pratibha Patil called for “a second green revolution” to stem spiraling food prices and declining supplies. ... It’s not clear, however, how Ms. Patil’s goal can be achieved. The forces arrayed against Indian farming are formidable; they are part of the country’s great leap toward modernity."


posted February 25, 2010, 2:15 p.m.


GM Tomatoes.  Scientists in India have genetically modified tomatoes so that they can last for 45 days after harvesting.  According to this press report,  "India, the world's second-largest tomato grower, loses 35 to 40 percent of its crop to rotting before the product hits store shelves."  The technique can also be applied to add shelf life to other fruits, including mangoes and bananas.  

posted February 24, 2010 at 8:30 a.m.


A Green Revolution in Africa?  New York Times reports on a controversy over whether or not a Gates Foundation effort to promote agricultural technology in Africa is a good idea or a bad idea.   “The tragedy here is not that Africa hasn’t had a Green Revolution but that the mistakes of the first may be repeated once more, and that one foundation has the power to make the rest of the world bend to its misguided agenda,” say opponents of the effort.  (This quoted from an article in The Nation.)   Support for GM-crops is especially controversial.  Also subsidies for commercial fertilizer, disdained by proponents of organic farming, have been successful in Malawi and other African countries.  "In the Southeast African nation of Malawi, for instance, which as recently as 2004 suffered food shortages that left much of the country near the brink of famine, large new government subsidies for chemical fertilizer have led to bumper crops of corn."

posted February 21, 2010 at 2:30 p.m.


Erlich-Symons bet,  redux.  Julian Symon famously won his bet,  but was it a matter of luck?  For many other periods,  Erlich might have won.    On the other hand,  there's a long run downward trend in commodity prices.

Both of these items brought to my attention by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.


Fertilizer Adoption policy in Kenya.  A recent paper by Ester Duflo, Michael Kremer, and Jonathan Robinson finds empirical support for a fertilizer subsidy program.  "[M]any farmers in Western Kenya fail to take advantage of apparently profitable fertilizer investments, but they do invest in response to small, time-limited discounts on the cost of acquiring fertilizer (free delivery) just after harvest."

posted November 30, 2009 at 11:00 a.m.


Forced land Resettlement in Kenya.  Concerned about environmental impacts of deforestation,  the Kenyan government is resettling forest dwellers to the plains, according to this NYTimes report.

posted November 24, 2009 at 2:00 p.m.


Will More Pollution Solve Climate change?  There has been an internet squall over the past week about some emails that were hacked or "whistle-blown" from the University of East Anglia's  Climatic Research Unit. One of those emails contains some speculation about a possible technological fix for global warming.  The solution:  More pollution!  (Release SO2 into the atmosphere.)   Mike MacCracken writes in an email to some of his colleagues: 

That there is a large potential for a cooling influence is sort of evident in the IPCC figure about the present sulfate distribution--most is right over China, for example, suggesting that the emissions are near the surface--something also that is, so to speak, 'clear' from the very poor visibility and air quality in China and India. So, the quick, fast, cheap fix is to put the SO2 out through tall stacks. The cooling potential also seems quite large as the plume would go out over the ocean with its low albedo--and right where a lot of water vapor is evaporated, so maybe one pulls down the water vapor feedback a little and this amplifies the sulfate cooling influence.  Now, I am not at all sure that having more tropospheric sulfate would be a bad idea as it would limit warming--I even have started suggesting that the least expensive and quickest geoengineering approach to limit global warming would be to enhance the sulfate loading

So did acid rain policy contribute in some way to global warming?  And when  you google "acid rain policy" you come upon this paper on "Lessons learned," which has some interesting insights and observations.

posted November 24, 2009 at 2:00 p.m.


 Foreign Ownership of Farmland in Ethiopia.  The Washington Post has an article about the growth of foreign ownership (and management) of farmland in Ethiopia.  One sales poster reads: ""Vast, fertile, irrigable land at low rent. Abundant water resources. Cheap labor. Warmest hospitality."   "Relatively wealthy countries are shoring up their food supplies by growing staple crops abroad. The desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for instance, is shifting wheat production to Africa. The government of India, where land is crowded and overfarmed, is offering incentives to companies to carve out mega farms across the [African] continent."  Related:  "Is Africa Selling out its Farmers?"    Also related from the NYT:  Is there such as thing as "Agro-Imperialism?" 

posted November 24, 2009 at 1:00 p.m.


Sequencing the Corn Genome.  The Washington Post has an article on the completion of mapping out the corn genome.  

"Many agronomists hope the information buried in corn's 32,000 genes and 2.3 billion letters of DNA may help sustain the century-long improvement in yield and hardiness into an era of climate change and, possibly, food shortage. ...There are at least 180 genes -- and perhaps as many as 1,270 -- present in some varieties but entirely missing in others. These genes (or groups of them) function like iPhone "apps," doing work that is essential for some users but unnecessary for others.  (Scientists think the merging of genetic apps may be one explanation for "hybrid vigor," which is the better performance of offspring compared with their parents.)  Knowing which genes carry non-universal traits -- such as the ability to survive in standing water or tolerance for drought -- will be extremely useful to plant breeders, said Richard K. Wilson, a human geneticist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis who helped lead the sequencing project.   'You want to see if you can get the two different desirable traits into the same plant,' Wilson said. 'When you have the genome, then you can pick and choose at the point where you have seeds. That is huge.'"

posted November 20, 2009 at  6:30 a.m.


They'll have to pry this pencil from my cold, dead hand.  This guy claims that the 2008 Farm Bill outlaws wood  (by amending the Lacey Act that makes it illegal to import, sell, or possess products made of wood from protected species trees). 

posted November 18, 2009 at 11:30 a.m.


Jeffrey Sachs on the World Food Problem.  Mark Thoma quotes Jeffrey Sachs's article in the December 2009 issue of Scientific America.   "It is not enough to produce more food; we must also simultaneously stabilize the global population and reduce the ecological consequences of food production—a triple challenge."

posted November 18, 2009 at 11:00 a.m.


Hunger Food insecurity in the US is at a 14 year high.

The USDA reports that food insecurity is up during the current recession.  The NYTimes article on the subject is here.  the USDA report is here.  An updated opinion supporting the view that a distinction needs to be made between "hunger" and "food insecurity"  is here

posted November 16, 2009 at 3:30 p.m

updated November 20, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.


Falling Fertility.   The Economist has an article (and more info here) about fertility declines in developing countries.  Here's a nice graphic with a cute baby:


"In the 1970s only 24 countries had fertility rates of 2.1 or less, all of them rich. Now there are over 70 such countries...Why has fertility fallen so fast, so widely? Malthus himself thought richer people would have more children and, as any biologist will tell you, animal populations increase when there is more food around."  A good answer to this follows.  Plus,  here's another fabulous graph:

posted October 31, 2009 at 5:00 p.m.


Famine in North Korea.  The New Yorker (November 2, 2009) has an article about famine in North Korea.

posted October 31, 2009 at 4:30 p.m.


End of Cheap Food.   Standard Chartered Bank has released a report of that name.   "The report concludes that a. `Feeding the world’ is achievable at a global level, but at a cost which will inevitably mean higher prices. b. Regional variations in food availability will widen, leading to more cross-border investment in the agricultural sector, the risk of protectionist policies, and heightened food security concerns for net food importers. c. At the local level, food affordability will become a key focus of fiscal and trade policy across the developing countries. While higher prices have positive implications for farm incomes and investment incentives, they will hinder the drive to improve food security for the poor."

posted October 28, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.


Can Biotech Crops Feed the World?  NY Times colloquium addresses this question,  with commentary from (among others)  Prof. Per Pinstrup-Andersen of Cornell and Prof. Michael Roberts of NC State.

posted October 28, 2009 at 2:00 p.m.


Biofuels and Global Warming.   If forest land is converted to crop land to grow crops for biofuels, increased  biofuels use might increase greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study.

posted October 25, 2009 at 9:00 a.m.


Save the Planet, Eat Your Pet.  Two New Zealand academics have written a book about the ecological/environmental impact of pet ownership.  According to this description:  "The eco-pawprint of a pet dog is twice that of a 4.6-litre Land Cruiser driven 10,000 kilometres a year, researchers have found."   The book Time to Eat the Dog,  by Brenda and Robert Vale, is not listed on Amazon.  So, for the time being file under "too good to fact check."  (Revisited in 2014:  the book does exist.)

posted October 22, 2009, 11:30 a.m.


Nanotechnology in Agriculture.  New research shows that seeds exposed to carbon nanotubes germinated earlier and produced larger plants than non-exposed seeds.  "Those effects may occur because nanotubes penetrate the seed coat and boost water uptake." 

posted October 22, 2009  11:30 a.m.


Posner and Becker on World Food Price Prospects.  Economist Gary Becker and legal scholar Richard Posner take up the question "Will World Food Prices Resume their sharp increase?"  Becker:  "the efforts and ingenuity of farmers and researchers are able to greatly increase world food supply to meet even very large increases in the world demand for food."  Posner:  "I am one of those timid souls who worry about the downside of technological advance and economic growth. I find the prospect of continued increases in population and income, and of the technological innovations necessary to cope with those trends, unsettling."   In the near term, however, exchange rate (value of the dollar) is likely to be the biggest factor in dollar denominated food prices.  Can a dollar devaluation be big enough and permanent enough to make this a part of the long term answer?

posted  October 12, 2009 2 p.m.


New Global Warming and the Food Supply.  The Economist describes some new findings from IFPRI concluding climate change will have a negative impact on global food supply. 

posted October 2, 2009, at 9:20 a.m.


Potatoes and European Economic Development.  Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian have a new paper on how potatoes influenced nutrition, demographics, and economic development in Europe. 


"Our study contributes to the debate by providing causal estimates of the impact of improved nutrition on population growth. We estimate the effect of improved nutrition caused by the large increase in availability of calories and nutrients that followed the introduction of the potato from the NewWorld to the OldWorld. …  Our estimation exploits the introduction of the potato to the Old World following the discovery of the Americas. This event, together with geographic and climatic variation in a country’s ability to cultivate and adopt the new food crop, provides a source of variation in nutrition that is plausibly exogenous to other factors that affect population growth. Because potatoes are superior to existing crops in terms of both calories and nutrition, we proxy for access to improved nutrition with the amount of land that is suitable for cultivating potatoes. …  Our results show that Old World regions that were suitable for potato cultivation experienced disproportionately faster population and urbanization growth after the introduction of potatoes. …[O]ur baseline estimates suggest that the potato accounts for 12% of the increase in population, 22% of the increase in population growth, 47% of the increase in urbanization, and 50% of the increase in urbanization growth."

posted October 2, 2009 at 9:20 a.m