Earlier this year, the United Nations Environmental Program released an eye-opening report. It estimated that by 2050, one-quarter of the world’s food production may be lost to “environmental breakdowns.” The most likely culprits will be land degradation, urban expansion into farmland, water scarcity, high prices for fertilizer, and climate change.
After outlining these problems, the report went on to offer a variety of potential responses. The quality of its ideas was decidedly mixed: We hardly need a global regime of price controls on staple crops, for instance.
Yet we certainly should take a long-term approach to the challenges that this UN agency has identified. That’s true even if the worst-case scenarios it has described turn out to be only half right.
Two of our most important solutions will be trade and technology. Free trade is a force for economic sustainability and biotechnology is a positive tool for the environment, long term. Together, they can help pave the way to a better future.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu made headlines recently for saying that the United States should threaten to close its markets to countries that refuse to tax carbon emissions. I hope he wasn’t serious. This would deliver a blow to the world’s most vulnerable people: By building new barriers to the free flow of goods and services, “green protectionism” would make it more difficult for poor people to achieve a level of economic prosperity that is a precondition for environmental stewardship.
We already know that costly foreign-aid schemes don’t do much good–and if you need a refresher course on that grim subject, read the new book “Dead Aid” by Zambian native Dambisa Moyo. The alternative to aid is trade, which has the effect of strengthening economies for both consumers and producers.
People who live in poverty are far more likely to deplete natural resources, if only because they feel a deeper sense of desperation. For a person whose family is hungry, an acre of rainforest is a logging opportunity. For a person whose material position is more secure, an acre of rainforest may well be something to preserve and protect. Because of this, tying developing countries to the global economy, and allowing them access to wealthy markets in North America, Europe, and Japan, is a key to long-term environmental sustainability.
So is technology. Farmers everywhere–from resource-poor subsistence growers in Africa to mass producers in the United States and Europe–deserve access to the best knowledge and tools available. We must coax as much food as possible from our available farmland if we’re going to meet the challenges of a growing population and also remain sensitive to the environmental pressure outlined in the UN report.
A generation ago, the Green Revolution delivered a jolt to farm productivity through the improved use of irrigation, fertilizer, and crop breeding. Today, we must rely on biotechnology to deliver many of the same benefits in what might usefully be called the Gene Revolution. The genetic enhancement of crops already has brought us large increases in yield. More is on the way, especially if we allow biotechnology to take advantage of all it can offer, from drought tolerance in wheat and maize to biofortification in rice.
These advances will require financial investments as well as scientific ingenuity. Political will, however, may prove even more important. For all of the benefits GM crops already have brought, and despite their widespread acceptance in the United States and many other countries, they still haven’t realized their current potential in Europe or developing countries.
This situation simply is not–for lack of a better word–sustainable. If the world turns toward protectionism, green or otherwise, we will find ourselves poorer than we should be and viewing our natural resources with craving rather than concern. And if we refuse to make the most of biotechnology, we will suffer the ramifications of embracing ignorance rather than science.
A wise approach to trade and technology will improve our lot. A wrong approach will make us worse off. These two potential “environmental breakdowns” are fully within our control.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org