Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Not yet resurrecting Malthus

In Health Affairs this week, I review The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World (W. W. Norton, 2015), by agronomist and journalist Joel K. Bourne Jr.

In an amusing passage, Bourne visits Bath Abbey in England and looks for the grave of 19th Century economist and minister Thomas Robert Malthus, who was famously pessimistic that food supplies would suffice to feed an overpopulated world.
Indeed, Malthus has been a central figure in this book as Bourne travels the globe, witnessing bread riots in Egypt, interviewing a pesticide-poisoned woman suffering from breast cancer in the Punjab, asking about the environmental sustainability of an industrial-scale pork facility in China, inspecting depleted irrigation systems in the American Southwest, and drinking vodka with farm employees in Ukraine as they reflect on the collapse of the agricultural infrastructure there. Bourne paraphrases the account by the Cornell University economist Chris Barrett of the long-term imbalance between global production and consumption this way: “In other words, the world is running out of food.”

Yet such pessimism is balanced in The End of Plenty by thoughtful attention to promising technological advances and social changes.
Bourne never did find Malthus' grave, which he later heard had been hidden under a pew. After reading this book, one may be concerned about the world food prospect, but perhaps not yet ready to resurrect Malthus.


Chris Barrett said...

Thanks for the post, Parke. But that's an odd paraphrase of me, since I don't believe I've ever said the world is running out of food. Demand growth might outpace supply growth, leading to price increases. But that's a very different matter and outcome.

Chris Barrett

Anonymous said...

@ Chris Barrett

You have not been misquoted or misattributed, rather you have been gratuitously rescued. Mr. Wilde was gently guiding you back onto the official sustainability talking points by indicating what, surely, you intended to say and what, certainly, you ought to have said. In future you may find it helpful to enlist Mr. Wilde's capable guidance well in advance of any speaking or publishing.

Parke Wilde said...

Hi Chris. The book passage quotes you sensibly and then fairly gives Bourne's own conclusion (clearly enough his words). In calling this a "paraphrase" I didn't mean to imply that Bourne attributed those words too closely to yourself. Regarding your astute point about prices, you may like my comment on prices in the Health Affairs review.

"[Bourne] uses prices to sound the alarm about hardship for the world’s poor, but not for their other useful purpose: summarizing the balance of competing pressures toward scarcity and plenty in each distinct food market and time period. This balance is central to The End of Plenty, so I would have enjoyed reading Bourne’s thoughts on whether high prices may sometimes send appropriate and desirable signals about scarcity and sustainability."

(Though I recognize this passage may trigger another comment from "anonymous" a much appreciated regular on this blog, who *really* dislikes the word "sustainability").

Anonymous said...

OK then, your passage is sufficient trigger. As much as I "really" mistrust how various vague interpretations of "sustainability" might be wielded, I cringe at the evident interchangeability, in your passage, of scarcity and sustainability.

It seems logical high prices send appropriate signals about scarcity and perhaps about anticipated unsustainability. Conversely, established sustainability of a commodity might reasonably be hypothesized to exert a moderating or possibly stabilizing effect on price signals. Except, of course, in contemporary markets we find a sustainability halo (conflated with meticulously manipulated consumer perceptions of local, organic, natural, non-gmo, etc) confers market advantage and rather arbitrary (and sometimes spectacular) premium pricing. Demand pull, what? Can this phenomenon eventually dominate the market and, if so, is this premium pricing justified in anticipation of scarcity that must accompany sustainability? Are there examples from history of such market transformations?

Oh well, these are examples of the sorts of questions many skeptics have about "sustainablilty" as a concept and as a regulatory metric. We don't expect you to find time for a thoughtful response today -- you never do. Just checking in that you may be fondly reminded of the real world out here from time to time. Cheers.