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No, Markets Will Not “Starve Humanity” by 2050

Blog Post | Economic Growth

No, Markets Will Not “Starve Humanity” by 2050

If humanity does face starvation in 2050, it will not be because of free markets.

Forbes magazine recently published an article titled, “Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity by 2050.” The author, Drew Hansen, a businessman and regular contributor to Forbes, starts out by claiming that capitalism has “failed to improve human well-being at scale.” This assertion is easily refuted by evidence. Over the last few decades, hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of extreme poverty. In fact, the share of the world’s population as well as the total number of people living in poverty is at an all-time low, despite a population increase of 143 percent since 1960. The left-leaning Brookings Institution predicts that absolute poverty will have been practically eliminated throughout the world by 2030. If this is not good news for global capitalism, what is? Capitalism, Hansen continues, is also responsible for widespread destruction of animal species, decimation of forests, and a growing risk of starvation. Let’s examine each of Hansen’s claims in turn.

Is capitalism killing off species?

Hansen claims that “species are going extinct at a rate 1,000 times faster than that of the natural rate.” Journalist and Human Progress advisory board member Matt Ridley, who holds a doctorate degree in zoology from Oxford University, rebutted this often-used claim in his book The Rational Optimist:

[There is a] now routine claim that extinction rates are running at 100 or 1,000 times their normal rates, because of human interference …There is no doubt that humans have caused a pulse of extinction, especially by introducing rats, bugs and weeds to oceanic islands at the expense of endemic species … But now that most of these accidental introductions to islands have happened, the rate of extinctions is dropping, not rising, at least among birds and mammals. Bird and mammal extinctions peaked at 1.6 a year around 1900 and have since dropped to about 0.2 a year.

Ridley also notes that the extinction rate has fallen even farther in the most industrialized countries, where people tend to care more about environmental stewardship. He himself has worked on various projects to help protect endangered birds. Capitalism, by creating wealth and enabling humanity to move past worries of basic survival, has helped us to preserve other species.

Is capitalism destroying the forests?

Hansen says that 6 million hectares of forest are being lost every year. While forest area is slowly declining, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. In a recent paper for the Breakthrough Institute, environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel describes how as countries grow wealthier and their populations come to care more about the environment, forests rebound:

Foresters refer to a “forest transition” when a nation goes from losing to gaining forested area. In 1830, France recorded the first forest transition. Since then, while the population of France has doubled, French forests have also doubled. In other words, forest loss decoupled from population. Measured by growing stock, the United States enjoyed its forest transition around 1950, and, measured by area, about 1990. The forest transition began around 1900, when states such as Connecticut had almost no forest, and now encompasses dozens of states.

To see the effect of rising wealth on forest protection, simply consider the contrasting trends in Europe and Africa:

Agricultural advances that let farmers harvest more food from less land are also helping to spare forests. Ausubel notes that smarter agricultural practices in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe freed at least 30 million hectares (an area the size of Poland or Italy) and possibly as many as 60 million hectares from agricultural use and returned it to nature.

Does capitalism make people poorer?

Citing the 2014 U.S. Census, Hansen notes that 15 percent of Americans live in poverty. (The Census defines poverty as an income of less than $12,071 a year for a single-person household, or $33 a day). But, what does it mean to be poor in America? As the Mercatus Center economist Steve Horwitz writes, “poor U.S. households are more likely to have basic appliances than the average household of the 1970s, and those appliances are of much higher quality.”

In 1984, for example, 83 percent of all households in the United States owned a refrigerator. By 2005, 99 percent of poor American households owned a refrigerator. The evidence of an improving standard of living for poor Americans is abundant and available – to those who are willing to see.

Hansen fails to mention that living on $33 a day is not poverty by historical standards. Throughout most of human history, almost everyone lived in extreme poverty. Only in the last two centuries has wealth dramatically increased. Early adopters of capitalism, such as the United States, have seen their average incomes skyrocket.

Moreover, Hansen does not put American poverty in a global perspective. Thirty-three dollars per person per day would be considered luxurious in the developing world today. (Globally, absolute poverty is measured at $1.90 per person per day.) Our understanding of poverty is undoubtedly skewed by America’s riches. But remember that if you make $32,400 or more per year, then you are in the global top 1 percent of income-earners (adjusted for differences in the cost of living).

Does capitalism lead to starvation?

Hansen then repeats the old and discredited idea that humanity won’t be able to feed itself as the population grows. Thomas Malthus first made that argument in 1798. Since Malthus’ time, humanity has found ways to produce more food per unit of land through innovations like synthetic fertilizers and increasingly advanced genetic modification techniques. As production increased, the prices of food fell. Today, food is 22 percent cheaper than it was in 1960, in spite of global population growth of 143 percent. As a result, calorie consumption increased, and the total number of undernourished people fell.

Malthus’ mistake was to ignore human beings’ ability to innovate their way out of problems. But, as Julian Simon found in The Ultimate Resource, people are excellent problem-solvers, and the free market helps to coordinate solutions to most of our everyday challenges. A challenge (feeding a growing population), led to technological innovation (the Green Revolution and GMOs) and that led to a solution (higher agricultural productivity and falling food prices). Far from leading to starvation, capitalism has ensured that the supply of food rose to meet growing demand.

If humanity does face starvation in 2050, it will not be because of capitalism – it will be because anti-capitalist views like Hansen’s have prevailed.

This first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Food Production

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 1: Norman Borlaug

Introducing the "Father of the Green Revolution," Norman Borlaug.

Today marks the inaugural launch of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org named: The Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of unsung heroes of progress who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. The Hero could be anyone from a scientist who invented a vaccine that saved millions of people, to a politician whose policies lifted a nation from poverty to prosperity.

Today, on the 9th anniversary of his passing, our first Hero of Progress is Norman Borlaug, the man commonly dubbed the “Father of the Green Revolution.”

Norman Ernest Borlaug was an American agronomist and humanitarian born in Iowa in 1914. After receiving a PhD from the University of Minnesota in 1944, Borlaug moved to Mexico to work on agricultural development for the Rockefeller Foundation. Although Borlaug’s taskforce was initiated to teach Mexican farmers methods to increase food productivity, he quickly became obsessed with developing better (i.e., higher-yielding and pest-and-climate resistant) crops.

As Johan Norberg notes in his 2016 book Progress:

After thousands of crossing of wheat, Borlaug managed to come up with a high-yield hybrid that was parasite resistant and wasn’t sensitive to daylight hours, so it could be grown in varying climates. Importantly it was a dwarf variety, since tall wheat expended a lot of energy growing inedible stalks and collapsed when it grew too quickly. The new wheat was quickly introduced all over Mexico.

In fact, by 1963, 95 percent of Mexico’s wheat was Borlaug’s variety and Mexico’s wheat harvest grew six times larger than it had been when he first set foot in the country nineteen years earlier.

Norberg continues, “in 1963, Borlaug moved on to India and Pakistan, just as it found itself facing the threat of massive starvation. Immediately, he ordered thirty-five trucks of high-yield seeds to be driven from Mexico to Los Angeles, in order to ship them from there.” Unfortunately, Borlaug’s convoy faced problems from the start; it was held up by Mexican police, blocked at the US border due to a ban on seed imports, and was then stalled by race-riots that obstructed the LA harbor.

Eventually Borlaug’s shipment began its voyage to India, but it was far from plain sailing.

Before the seeds had reached the sub-continent, Indian state monopolies began lobbying against Borlaug’s shipment and then, once it was ashore, it was discovered that half the seeds had been killed due to over-fumigation at customs. If that wasn’t enough, Borlaug learnt that the Indian government was planning to refuse fertilizer imports as they “wanted to build up their domestic fertilizer industry.” Luckily that policy was abandoned once Borlaug famously shouted at India’s deputy Prime Minister.

Borlaug later noted, “I went to bed thinking the problem was at last solved and woke up to the news that war had broken out between India and Pakistan.” Amid the war, Borlaug and his team continued to work tirelessly planting seeds. Often the fields were within sight of artillery flashes.

Despite the late planting, yields in India rose by seventy percent in 1965. The proven success of his harvests coupled with the fear of wartime starvation, meant that Borlaug got the go-ahead from the Pakistani and Indian governments to roll out his program on a larger scale. The following harvest was even more bountiful and wartime famine was averted.

Both nations praised Borlaug immensely. The Pakistani Agriculture Minister took to the radio applauding the new crop varieties, while the Indian Agriculture Minister went as far as to plough his cricket pitch with Borlaug’s wheat.  After a huge shipment of seed in 1968, the harvest in both countries boomed. It is recorded that there were not enough people, carts, trucks, or storage facilities to cope with the bountiful crop.

This extraordinary transformation of Asian agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s almost banished famine from the entire continent. By 1974, wheat harvests had tripled in India and, for the first time, the sub-continent became a net exporter of the crop. Norberg notes, “today they (India and Pakistan) produce seven times more wheat than they did in 1965. Despite a rapidly growing population, both countries are much better fed than they used to be.”

Borlaug’s wheat, and the dwarf rice varieties that followed, are credited for ushering in the Green Revolution. After the Indo-Pakistani war, Borlaug spent years working in China and later in life, Africa.

In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his accomplishments. He is only one of seven to have received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize. It is said that he was particularly satisfied when the people of Sonora, Mexico, where he did some of his first experiments, named a street after him.

Norman Borlaug’s work undeniably changed the world for the better, and in saving approximately one billion lives, he truly deserves to be our first Hero of Progress.

version of this article appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Food & Hunger

Sri Lanka Is a Wake-Up Call for Eco-Utopians

The country's economic collapse is a grim preview of what can result from distorting markets in the name of utopian priorities.

Sri Lanka’s decision to ban agricultural chemicals and switch to organic farming backfired spectacularly, causing a sharp decline in crop yields and a surge in food prices. The case of Sri Lanka shows the dangers of imposing radical environmental policies without considering the economic and social costs.

Earlier this week, a group of Sri Lankan protestors took a refreshing dip in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pool. It was probably a welcome respite from the steamy eighty-degree day in Colombo, as well from the unprecedented economic crisis currently devastating the country. Over the last year, Sri Lanka has experienced an annual inflation rate of more than 50 percent, with food prices rising 80 percent and transport costs a staggering 128 percent. Faced with fierce protests, the Sri Lankan government declared a state of emergency and deployed troops around the country to maintain order.

On Thursday morning, the New York Times published an episode of The Daily podcast discussing some of the forces behind the collapse. They outlined how years of irresponsible borrowing by the Rajapaksa political dynasty, combined with the damage caused by Covid lockdowns to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, drained the country’s foreign exchange reserves. Soon, the country was unable to make payments on its debt or import essential goods like food and gasoline. Strangely, the hosts of the podcast, which reaches over 20 million monthly listeners, didn’t mention President Rajapaksa’s infamous fertilizer ban once during the thirty-minute episode.

The fertilizer ban was, in fact, a major factor in the unrest. Agriculture is an essential economic sector in Sri Lanka. Around 10 percent of the population works on farms, and 70 percent of Sri Lankans are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture. Tea production is especially important, consistently responsible for over ten percent of Sri Lanka’s export revenue. To support that vital industry, the country spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year importing synthetic fertilizers.

During his election campaign in 2019, Rajapaksa promised to wean the country off these fertilizers with a ten-year transition to organic farming. He expedited his plan in April 2021 with a sudden ban on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. He was so confident in his policies that he declared in a (since stealthily deleted and memory-holed) article for the World Economic Forum in 2018, “This is how I will make my country rich again by 2025.” As the ecomodernist author Michael Shellenberger writes, the results of the experiment with primitive agricultural techniques were “shocking:”

Over 90 percent of Sri Lanka’s farmers had used chemical fertilizers before they were banned. After they were banned, an astonishing 85 percent experienced crop losses. Rice production fell 20 percent and prices skyrocketed 50 percent in just six months. Sri Lanka had to import $450 million worth of rice despite having been self-sufficient just months earlier. The price of carrots and tomatoes rose fivefold. … [Tea exports crashed] 18 percent between November 2021 and February 2022 — reaching their lowest level in more than two decades.

Of course, Rajapaksa’s foolish policy wasn’t revealed to him in a dream. As Shellenberger points out, the ban was inspired by an increasingly Malthusian environmentalism led by figures like the Indian activist Vandana Shiva, who cheered the ban last summer. Foreign investors beholden to the same ideology also praised and rewarded Sri Lanka for “taking up sustainability and ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) issues on its top priority.” ESG represents a trend (or lasting shift, depending on who you ask) in some investors’ priorities. Put simply, it is an attempt to move capital toward organizations that further a set of amorphous environmental and social justice goals instead of toward the enterprises most likely to succeed and turn a profit.

Proponents of ESG have been pushing for government mandates requiring enterprises to disclose detailed information related to environmentalism and other social goals. That distorts and harms the smooth functioning of the capital markets that keep modern economies running and, in some cases, incentivizes nice-sounding but economically inefficient projects, like a return to primitive agriculture. “The nation of Sri Lanka has an almost perfect ESG rating of 98.1 on a scale of 100,” notes David Blackmon in Forbes, and “the government which had forced the nation to achieve that virtue-signaling target in recent years [has as a result] collapsed.” Sri Lanka, in other words, offers a grim preview of what can result from distorting markets in the name of utopian priorities.

Consider a long-run perspective. Throughout most of human history, farmers produced only organic food—and food was so scarce that, despite the much lower population in the past, malnutrition was widespread. The long-term, global decline in undernourishment is one of humanity’s proudest achievements. Lacking a sense of history and taking abundant food for granted, some environmentalists want to transform the global food system into an organic model. They see modern agriculture as environmentally harmful and would like to see a transition to natural fertilizers that would be familiar to our distant ancestors, such as compost and manure.

However, conventional farming is not only necessary to produce a sufficient amount of food to feed humanity (a point that cannot be emphasized enough—as the writer Alfred Henry Lewis once observed, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy”) but it is in many ways better for the environment. According to a massive meta-analysis by the ecologists Michael Clark and David Tilman, the natural fertilizers used in organic agriculture actually lead to more pollution than conventional synthetic products. Fertilizers and pesticides also allow us to farm land more intensively, leading to ever-higher crop yields, which allow us to grow more food on less land. According to HumanProgress board member Matt Ridley, if we tried to feed the world with the organic yields of 1960, we would have to farm twice as much land as we do today. 

Arable land needed to produce a fixed quantity of crops FAO UN

Global agricultural land use has peaked and is now in decline. So long as crop yields continue to increase, more and more land can be returned to natural ecosystems, which are far more biodiverse than any farm. Smart agriculture allows nature to rebound.

In wealthy countries, conventional farming is becoming ever-more efficient, using fewer inputs to grow more food. In the United States, despite a 44 percent increase in food production since 1981, fertilizer use barely increased, and pesticide use fell by 18 percent. As the esteemed Rockefeller University environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel noted, if farmers everywhere adopted the modern and efficient techniques of U.S. farmers, “an area the size of India or the USA east of the Mississippi could be released globally from agriculture.”

Most importantly, it must be restated, conventional agriculture feeds the world. Since the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s, world agricultural production has exploded, causing the global food supply to reach nearly 3000 kcal per day in 2017, up from just over 2,000 in 1961. While hunger is now making a comeback, that is due to war, export restrictions, and the misguided policies of leaders like Rajapaksa, not a lack of the ability to produce enough food.

Global Agricultural Production USDA-PSD

The fertilizer ban was not the only factor behind Sri Lanka’s economic crash. Much of the damage was also caused by the hastiness of the ban and the difficulty of obtaining enough organic alternatives. However, the idea that organic farming can produce enough food for the world is an unreachable fantasy based on the naturalistic fallacy — the baseless notion that anything modern, such as agriculture incorporating non-natural components produced by the ingenuity of man, must be inferior to the all-natural precursor. 

As Ted Nordhaus and Saloni Shah from the Breakthrough Institute point out, “there is literally no example of a major agriculture-producing nation successfully transitioning to fully organic or agroecological production.” We must never take the relative rarity of starvation in modern times as a given nor romanticize and seek to return to farming’s all-organic past. Unfortunately, the delusion seems to be spreading, helped along by the global shift toward ESG. Last Sunday, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, praised “natural farming” during a speech in Gujarat, calling it a way to “serve mother earth” and promising that India will “move forward on the path of natural farming.” Let’s hope not.

Blog Post | Innovation

Human Ingenuity and the Future of Food

Humans have been modifying food for millennia, and today we're modifying it in many exciting ways, from cultured meat to golden rice.

A recent article in Business Insider showing what the ancestors of modern fruits and vegetables looked like painted a bleak picture. A carrot was indistinguishable from any skinny brown root yanked up from the earth at random. Corn looked nearly as thin and insubstantial as a blade of grass. Peaches were once tiny berries with more pit than flesh. Bananas were the least recognizable of all, lacking the best features associated with their modern counterparts: the convenient peel and the seedless interior. How did these barely edible plants transform into the appetizing fruits and vegetables we know today? The answer is human ingenuity and millennia of genetic modification.

(Photo Credit: Genetic Literacy Project and Shutterstock via Business Insider).

Humanity is continuously innovating to produce more food with less land, less water, and fewer emissions. As a result, food is not only more plentiful, but it is also coming down in price.

The pace of technological advancement can be, if you will pardon the pun, difficult to digest. Lab-grown meat created without the need to kill an animal is already a reality. The first lab-grown burger debuted in 2013, costing over $300,000, but the price of a lab-grown burger patty has since plummeted, and the innovation’s creator “expects to be able to produce the patties on a large enough scale to sell them for under $10 a piece in a matter of five years.” 

People who eschew meat are a growing demographic, and lab-grown meat is great news for those who avoid meat solely for ethical reasons. It currently takes more land, energy, and water to produce a pound of beef than it does to produce equivalent calories in the form of chickens, but also grains. So, cultured meat could also lead to huge gains in food production efficiency.

Another beautiful example of human progress in the realm of food is golden rice. The World Health Organization estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 children become blind every year as a result of vitamin A deficiency, and about half of them die within a year of losing their sight. Golden rice, largely a brainchild of the private Rockefeller Foundation, is genetically engineered to produce beta carotene, which the human body can convert into vitamin A. Golden rice holds the potential to protect hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world from vitamin A deficiency, preserving their sight and, in many cases, saving their lives.Humans have been modifying food for millennia, and today we’re modifying it in many exciting ways, from cultured meat to golden rice.

Sadly, it has become fashionable to fear modern genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), even though scientists overwhelmingly agree that GMOs are safe. Anti-GMO hysteria motivated the popular restaurant chain Chipotle to proclaim itself “GMO-free” earlier this year (a dubious claim), prompted a political movement calling for the labeling of GM foods (a needless regulation implying to consumers that GMOs are hazardous), and even fueled opposition to golden rice. HumanProgress.org advisory board member Matt Ridley summarized the problem in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:

After 20 years and billions of meals, there is still no evidence that [GMOs] harm human health, and ample evidence of their environmental and humanitarian benefits. Vitamin-enhanced GM “golden rice” has been ready to save lives for years, but opposed at every step by Greenpeace. Bangladeshi eggplant growers spray their crops with insecticides up to 140 times in a season, risking their own health, because the insect-resistant GMO version of the plant is fiercely opposed by environmentalists. Opposition to GMOs has certainly cost lives.

Besides, what did GMOs replace? Before transgenic crop improvement was invented, the main way to breed new varieties was “mutation breeding”: to scramble a plant’s DNA randomly, using gamma rays or chemical mutagens, in the hope that some of the monsters thus produced would have better yields or novel characteristics. Golden Promise barley, for example, a favorite of organic brewers, was produced this way. This method still faces no special regulation, whereas precise transfer of single well known genes, which could not possibly be less safe, does.

Fortunately, while regulations motivated by anti-GMO sentiment may slow down progress, they probably cannot do so indefinitely. For those who wish to avoid modern GM foods, the market will always provide more traditional alternatives, and for the rest of us, human ingenuity will likely continue to increase agricultural efficiency and improve food in ways we cannot even imagine. Learn more about the progress we have already made by selecting the “Food” category under “Data” here at HumanProgress.org.

This post first appeared in Cato at Liberty on September 8, 2015.