Tuesday, January 05, 2010
Shall the Malthusians win?
At Comment Central, Danny Finkelstein asks whether the United Kingdom can feed itself using its own agricultural output (link). The answer, he concludes, is that it is possible. I would like him to ask whether it is sensible.The Secretary of State for the Destruction of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn, was on the Today programme this morning doing a passable impression of his father in arguing that the UK needs a Twenty-Year Agricultural Plan (src). He perceives a future food crisis, and the Bennite Solution is to make the UK self-sufficient in food by 2030. The factors which will make this crisis are the diminution of oil stocks, growing and increasingly wealthy populations in the developing world, and the disruption of marginal agricultural land by climate change.This is the modern, reheated version of the Malthusian crisis, first proposed by Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth-century British economist and vicar. (As an aside, this is another mark against church ministers dabbling in economics. They really aren't able.) Malthus believed that although population grows exponentially, output of food grows only linearly. You can see that on his prediction, we'd probably be well beyond the starvation point already.But we're not, even if isolated areas are sometimes pushed nearer to it than anyone would like. Why so? Because unforeseen technological development has made our agriculture more efficient over the years. We produce far more per acre now than we have done in history, thanks to fertilisers, machinery and scientific understanding of how best to grow crops.Benn's pessimistic assumption is the mistake that Malthus made: he thinks that we are as good at growing food as we ever can be, and output cannot increase much further either through efficiency or through completely new channels. I don't suppose that for one moment. We may run short of oil-based fertilisers if oil stocks become depleted, but other alternatives exist, and I expect someone will find a way to make them more cheaply and efficiently when the incentives are there for them so to do. [EDIT: apparently 'oil-based fertilisers' are a bit of a myth. But whenever oil stocks reach noticeable depletion, the increasing price of that factor in agriculture, however it arises, will be an incentive to move away to something cheaper.] Even if we can't eke much more out of the soil — and I find that hard to believe, on the basis of past history — we are moving towards an era of hydroponic farming (wiki) and, possibly, the growth of meat in the laboratory (wiki). In short, food production can still grow.So if we're not in any significant danger of running out of food, isn't self-sufficiency a good idea anyway? Again, no.It cannot possibly be more secure to rely on one country for all our food. We are far more secure if we rely on the world market, because there is a much greater potential supply out there than there ever could be over here. One hard frost could wreck the UK's food supplies, but it would be a major event which caused serious damage to the world agricultural market.It may seem attractive to a politician, who can have a Twenty-Year Plan emblazoned with his name, but acquiring all our food from one bread-basket is a dangerous, insecure proposition. Further opening our borders to food imports, including allowing in processed foods from developing countries, and stopping the mad Common Agricultural Policy which subsidises farmers at the taxpayer's expense, is a far better way to ensure our future food security.