May 15, 1998

Our Daily Bread

Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service too his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.

Jonathan Swift, 1726

I have just finished an article that contained some remarkable statistics: About half of the calories consumed by all of the people in the world are provided by just three crops: rice, wheat and corn.In this country, harvests have more than doubled over the past half-century, while the area under cultivation(300 million acres) has remained steady, During the same period, the number of farmers has fallen from 6.2 million to 2.2 million.

This is attributed to improvements in the genetics of the crops and more intensive farming methods that have increased the yield per acre. For example, in 1940, 30 bushels per acre was considered a good yield. Now it is 130 or 140 bushels.Rice yields have increased about 1% per year since 1960. Wheat yields have also increased, as has the protein content of wheat.The decrease in the number of farmers is mostly attributable to the mechanization of farming.

It is conceivable that the famine that has hit parts of Africa and Asia could spread and involve more of the world. The combination of population growth and climactic changes can lead to famine in some areas. A worldwide famine could result if the growth of population outpaces the growth in the food supply. The former U.S.S.R., which used to be a major grower of wheat has had to import it. The major wheat producers are now the U.S. and China.

Better water use and fertilizers are partly responsible for better yields. However, it has reached a point where the cost of additional fertilizer is not economically compensated by a great enough yield. As a consequence, the yield of grains seems to be stabilizing, while populations continue to increase.

There hasn't been much improvement in wheat yield in the US or Mexico for the past 13 years, and Canada and Egypt's yields started stagnating in 1990.

My reason for a column on this subject is that much of what I have read deals with the down side of technology and genetics. One down side to all technology is that increasing crop yield merely delays the time when there will not be enough food to feed the increasing population and large numbers of people will die off of starvation. Right now, in the third world countries, forests are being destroyed to make way for agriculture. The chain saw can do a better job of it than a hand saw, so more trees can be cut down using less labor and in less time.

If technology is used intelligently, it can be a true blessing. If not, it can be a curse, far worse than no progress at all. A case in point is technology used to make better instruments for killing and maiming people. But it is not the technology that is bad, but what and how it is used. Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, knew that his invention would be a blessing if used in peace and a curse when used for war.

One down side of technology is that reducing infant mortality and increasing people's lifespans means that when a famine happens, it will kill an immense number of people. It is like comparing to the number of people killed in a single car crash with the number of people killed when a B-747 crashes.

Not everyone views improved agriculture as a benefit. In 1930, Bertrand Russell wrote that "With the introduction of agriculture mankind entered upon a long period of meanness, misery, and madness, from which they are only now being freed by the benificant operation of the machine."

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