How much will/could genetic engineering help?


That's the topic of a thoughtful essay by Nathanael Johnson on the Grist website. He gives a reasonable summary of my argument that many hoped-for improvements either involve tradeoffs (some of them acceptable) or radical enough changes that their effects will be hard to predict.

He also cites my colleague Jonathan Foley's suggestion that "we" should "Reduce food waste, eat less meat, and make fertilizer and irrigation available to the farmers that need it."

OK, but who's "we"? Any "solution" that requires billions of people to change what they're doing -- because they read Foley's article in Science? -- will be a long time coming. For example, a few million rich consumers eating less meat -- this would lower the demand for meat so that meat prices decrease so that slightly-less-rich consumers eat more meat, but let's pretend total meat consumption goes down a few percent -- would not have much effect on global greenhouse gas production or food security for the billion or two in greatest need. Similarly, if a couple billion consumers wasted less food, that would free up some resources. But if you and a few friends reduce your waste, it's a drop in the ocean.

Reducing pre-consumer food waste has more potential. Because reducing pre-consumer waste could mean larger profits for farmers, food companies, etc., near-universal adoption of practical waste-reducing methods is at least conceivable. Motivation linked to higher profits also means, however, that the obvious improvements have already been made. Less-obvious improvements are already a major research focus, but more likely to be invented by engineers than ecologists.

Expanding access to irrigation might greatly increase food security, but it would be a big project, perhaps costing a significant fraction of what we spend on war or video games. So I'm not holding my breath.

Increasing access to fertilizer can start small and scale up -- avoiding over-fertilization -- so that's an area where contributions from a few million people (or a handful of rich people) could really make a difference. But I worry about solutions that require on-going subsidies.

And then there's plant breeding. Develop a cultivar that out-performs what's available now, and watch it spread.


Fair points – though maybe what he’s really driving at is that the economic choices of the wealthy are major contributors to climate change and to the misery of the poor, so people hanker after finding better economic choices. If such choices led to different values being placed on energy, or emissions, or smallholder farms then things may play out very differently to just an alternative market equilibrium. It’s troubling that there’s scarcely even a debate about economic policies to adjust demand in the context of climate change or economic justice; instead, we’re putting almost all our eggs in the technical fix basket. There are huge subsidies, explicit and implicit, in existing global food markets so why not at least put demand management on the negotiating table?

Negotiation? Is there some global negotiation I've missed?

A globally enforced agreement to reduce consumption would be great, but what would it take to make that happen? Destruction of coastal cities by rising oceans? I'm not sure even that would be enough to get beyond finger-pointing to global cooperation.

So we're left with regional agreements, where Europe uses less oil, lowering the price so that other countries use more. Or individual conservation measures, which have even less effect.

Or technological advances that are adopted globally because they benefit the individuals adopting them: birth control, better farming methods, improved crops, programmable thermostats, insulation, more-efficient cars?

I must admit, though, that I'm hoping my book will influence politicians, not just farmers.

The problem with technological advances is the rebound effects, which I believe the evidence shows are generally high: thus, more efficient cars = more mileage = same emissions. And much the same is true on the poverty and social justice side of things: higher yielding staple crops = smaller subsistence farms = same poverty. Of course, you’re right that the scope for global negotiation on limiting consumption is minimal – though I suspect that we may see changes in the coming decades with organisations like the WTO enjoying less freedom to fix the terms of ‘free trade’ in favour of the wealthy few, and perhaps the growth of trade protectionism which may or may not help tackle over-consumption and poverty depending on how it’s done. I suppose when I invoked the concept of ‘negotiation’ I meant something less ambitious – we could at least start by acknowledging intellectually that economic growth models are not the only ones available, and that producing less and distributing it more evenly are intellectually plausible alternatives. They may not be politically plausible ones at the moment, but you first have to build a movement around the idea before you can begin to realise it. Hence I think we need both technical innovation and social critique.


I more or less agree with your overall point.

I get that "more-efficient cars => more miles driven" which shares economic assumptions with my "Americans eating less meat => Chinese eating more meat." And maybe insulation leads to warmer houses rather than energy savings.

But can you explain how higher yields cause smaller subsistence farms? I would have thought higher yields would cause lower prices (all else being equal) and hence lower income for small farms that sell their produce. But lower prices would also reduce commercial demand for marginal land, leaving more of it available for subsistence farmers.

I'm not doubting a decrease in farm size, just wondering about causes. Division among children, or land grabs not directly linked to crop yields, seem like other explanations.

Yes, I was basically referring to land grabs - or perhaps more generally to tenurial arrangements that allow landholders to tap the additional income poor farmers manage to accrue, so perhaps not necessarily a decrease in physical farm size as such. My basic point is that to tackle food security for the poorest plant breeding improvements alone won't do, you also have to look at social relations, which generally have the 'trickle up' effect of directing money from the poor to the rich. My comment was a bit simplistic though so I'm glad you queried it as it encourages me to research it a bit more. A top of the head example might be the potato, which here in Europe certainly outperformed what was previously available in terms of calories per unit area when it was introduced. However, I don't think its introduction led to greater food security, less cultivated land or any other especially desirable outcome - the Irish famine being the extreme counter case in point. Modern thinking on poverty and famines has moved on a bit since then, but perhaps not as much as some might like to think. Of course, none of that means it was a bad idea to introduce the potato (or to breed better performing new cultivars now). However, I think people sometimes focus inordinately on the possibilities for technical improvement because it's less uncomfortable than talking about distribution and social justice. And yet without addressing social justice the benefits accruing from technical improvements don't tend to end up in the pockets of the poor, even if those improvements are directed at them.

My original point was that one person eating less meat will have negligible (maybe not quite zero) beneficial effects on anything but his or her own health, because decreased demand in one region decreases prices and increases consumption elsewhere.

One person working for social justice, or policies to slow population growth (which may overlap with social justice), or to develop improved varieties or better farming methods could have much more effect. Which of those to focus on has to be a function of the benefits from achieving some goal but also the chances of achieving that goal. I certainly would not argue that a social-justice advocate should switch to plant breeding.

How did introduction of the potato affect food security *before* the resulting population increase?

While I agree that increased yields likely succeed more quickly than measures aimed at personal behaviors like recycling, eating less meat, and turning back (or forward) the thermostat with the season - exactly because there is a more immediate connection with a greater profit potential. But there are economic benefits to the latter, and markets will reward those individuals who use resources more efficiently.

The rebound effects you've both noticed here (and I won't contradict) are also a result of a given 'current' capacity. Let the capacity disappear or dwindle and conservation's rewards will become apparent. Higher availability of a resource requires less capable management of the resource. When technology allows us to increase availability we can breathe easier as we work on the next technological advance, or learn to better manage the resource at hand. If we don't come up with either new tech or better management then we have problems.

You pick the low hanging fruit while prices are low. When the price goes up, you build a ladder.

Ford, I'm not in fundamental disagreement with you. But I'm not quite with you on the economics - the standard argument is that if demand decreases then price falls, and supply with it. Of course a few people abstaining from meat or other such things will make no difference, but if their reasons are political and they're building a movement and doing their best (however puny) to model the behaviour that they'd like to see, then who knows... Julian Baggini's article in today's 'Guardian' explores this point a bit:

My take on the Irish famine is that population increase wasn't the fundamental problem (and nor was Phytophthora). The fundamental problem was that the gentry squeezed the peasantry to near landlessness, and then the government (non-)response was coloured by laissez faire economic assumptions - neither of which is a million miles from present situations. Hence my arguments about the need to combine social reform with technical improvement (maybe similar to Clem's orchard analogies). Not in any major way a contradiction of your position, but perhaps a slightly different emphasis.

My impression is that the potato famine had multiple causes, including those you list. Population had increased fourfold since 1600, which can't have helped food security, but I am not arguing that was the whole problem. For comparison, do you know how much land the gentry stole during that period? In other words, how much were peasants squeezed by gentry vs. squeezing themselves?

I'm happy to go with multiple causes. I don't think tenure and government inaction generally get the attention they deserve - including in a 2006 report on food security by the UK government which used the famine as an example of why we shouldn't aim to increase national food self-reliance - but of course they're not the whole story either. I can't answer your question on gentry tenure specifically enough, but I'll look into it. Thanks for the reference, and for prompting this interesting line of enquiry - and indeed for your constantly thought-provoking book and blog.

Leave a comment