By Matthew Cameron
As U.S. politicians continued to fret over the national debt, a small group of scientists, policy experts, and journalists gathered at the National Press Club this morning to discuss a truly frightening long-term problem: how to feed a world population that is projected to exceed 9 billion people by 2045. The title of the seminar was “A Greener Revolution: Improving Productivity and Increasing Food Security by Enhancing Ecosystem Services,” and the key take-away was that more effective governance rather than new technology or advanced farming techniques is going to be the chief determinant of whether the world can avoid a catastrophic population crash before the conclusion of the 21st century.
There are a couple unique characteristics of food production that make it particularly dependent upon government regulation. First and foremost, it is an industry that is necessary for human survival. Whereas people can choose whether or not to buy other products based on their economic conditions and preferences, it is biologically essential for individuals to obtain a certain level of daily nutrition from food. Additionally, two of the primary inputs of food production — fertile land and water — are finite public goods that many different people share. Thus, without effective government regulation, there will be severe pressure placed upon these resources as individuals appropriate them without regard for the aggregate impact had by their entire community.
Policymakers must face a difficult reality: The U.S. model of deregulated, high-intensity crop production is not exportable around the world. In fact, it isn’t even viable domestically in the long run. This is because the capital-intensive mode of production that has worked so well in other industries simply cannot escape the inflexible resource constraints of the natural world. Sure, it’s possible to use machines to clear large swaths of forest in order to plant more corn or soy, but eventually farmers will either run out of water with which to irrigate those crops, deplete the soil nutrients to an irreversible point, or just add so much carbon to the atmosphere (by eliminating the sequestration potential of the trees) that climate patterns will change and render the local environment inhospitable to any form of agriculture whatsoever.
Instead of allowing for this to happen, it makes more sense for governments to recognize the constraints up front and implement policies that responsibly manage production. Unlike with crops, the U.S. has embraced this approach with some success in the management of its fisheries. Superior technology also has helped, but there’s no getting around the fact that without government limits on bycatch, it would simply be cheaper and more efficient for fishermen to use nets to catch tuna while sweeping up dolphins and sea turtles in the process.
The challenge in applying these lessons to the developing world, however, is ensuring that regulatory regimes are effective. After all, even the U.S. has struggled to make its organic certification process seem legitimate due to intense industry opposition to higher standards. Thus, it makes sense for international aid to focus on not only providing food to drought victims and seeds to farmers, but also on providing guidance to bureaucrats and policymakers attempting to create the proper standards and incentives for sustainable agriculture in their own nations.