Beating A Dead Horse in Burma

You may recall my opposition to the full-on rush to tinker with the genetic code of our staple foods.  In a comment on this post, I said:

Overpopulation is what leads us to starvation, not lack of food production. Right now someone dies every 3.6 seconds from hunger. I’d like you to calculate the amount of food we’d need to start producing and distributing–over the billions of tons produced already–in order to even make a dent in that rate. That’s assuming, of course, that all of those deaths from hunger are solely from lack of food, not political maneuverings that have kept the food from undesired populations. The fact is, when we have individual governments and religions–and they’re highly culpable, both–that deny birth control, technology, and resources, then we’re going to have starving people. We need to address the disease, not the symptom.

AND I wrote:

Even if we food drop into some countries, the starving won’t get the food.

Almost directly on cue, God dropped the hammer on Burma (Myanmar).  And lookee what happens:

Myanmar’s isolationist regime allowed the first plane of a major international airlift to land Thursday with aid for cyclone survivors, a U.N. official said, amid fears that lack of safe food and drinking water could push the death toll above 100,000.

But the junta was not allowing U.S. military planes to fly in critical relief goods and continued to stall on visas for U.N. teams urgently seeking entry to ensure aid is delivered to the victims. . .

Four planes loaded with high-energy biscuits, medicine and other supplies have waited for the last two days while frustrated U.N. officials negotiated with the military regime to allow the material into the Southeast Asian nation.

Even after a devastating cyclone that has killed tens of thousands of people, perhaps 100,000, with over a million people displaced or affected, the Myanmar government was more concerned with their grip on power than the welfare of their people. 

It is governments like this that lead to mass starvation and waste of resources (including people who could be taught to farm and produce food).  When the short-sighted, destructive and wasteful policies of such governments are no more, and people are allowed the freedom, technology, and resources to thrive, food will once again be abundant worldwide.  Without resorting to the gambling with our major foodsources. 

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46 thoughts on “Beating A Dead Horse in Burma

  1. Wow, I had no idea you were such a big fan of globalization.

    In any event, isn’t this a little overly simplistic? Even if one could isolate and eradicate all governments blocking food shipments to their people or mis-allocating that food, that would do nothing to answer the question of a static amount of land devoted to food sources, an exploding population and many emerging “first world” countries that are demanding better and better foodstuffs with the accompanying imbalance between livestock produced and growable land required to produce them.

    Saying the entirety of the world’s food woes are the problem of isolationist governments like Myanmar’s is just willfully ignoring a growing threat to world stability that promises to be greater than terrorism or vanity wars.

  2. Wow, I had no idea you were such a big fan of globalization.

    Yeah. That’s what I said. 🙄

    I’m not a fan of globalization per se, but I am a fan of education and personal responsibility. And, again, the exploding population is a result of personal choice. Don’t have 6 kids if you can only feed 3.

    I truly dread discussing this, because I’m getting into dangerous territory here, but . . .

    There are other facets to my solution that I’ve yet to discuss because they’re unpopular (I know–since when does that stop me) but I think they’re inevitable. Such as mandatory cremation. Yes, I know, it goes against religious customs, religious freedom, and burial is an institution we’ll not be readily rid of. But if people are going to talk about a lack of growable or grazing land, then reclaiming cemetaries seems like a huge and immediate solution to that problem.

    And yes, I got the idea from George Carlin. He was joking, but frankly I don’t see why, apart from offended senses, it doesn’t make sense on a practical level. I’m not talking about digging up bodies, here, but rather not parcelling off new acreage for future dead bodies.

    What, we should save them for guys like this?

    Saying the entirety of the world’s food woes are the problem of isolationist governments like Myanmar’s is just willfully ignoring a growing threat to world stability that promises to be greater than terrorism or vanity wars.

    Nowhere did I say the entirety of the problem is due to such governments. But they are a big part of the problem.

    And one important fact remains: we cannot produce enough food, even with genetically engineered crops, to even make a significant impact on the amount of people dying from hunger until we stem population growth. Population growth is the problem, starvation is the symptom.

    One only has to look at the facts:

    -854 million people across the world are hungry, up from 852 million a year ago.

    -The United States is a part of the developed or industrialized world, which consists of about 57 countries with a combined population of about 1 billion, less than one sixth of the world’s population.

    -In contrast, approximately 5.1 billion people live in the developing world. This world is made up of about 125 low and middle-income countries in which people generally have a lower standard of living with access to fewer goods and services than people in high-income countries.

    Until we face the unpleasant reality that the poor people are breeding faster because they don’t have access to birth control, nothing will solve the starvation problem. ESPECIALLY since

    the majority of those falling sick with AIDS (in the developing world) are young adults who normally harvest crops, food production has dropped dramatically in countries with high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates.

    Tinkering with genetic manipulation of crops is just tilting at windmills so we can feel good. While more and more children are born into starvation every single day.

  3. And I don’t want to be misconstrued as heartless. I do my part, quite frankly, to donate and to encourage others to donate, on both the local level and beyond, toward eliminating hunger.

    But all the donations in the world will amount to naught if we do not address the institutional problems that perpetuate hunger itself.

  4. “Nowhere did I say the entirety of the problem is due to such governments.”

    Really?

    “It is governments like this that lead to mass starvation and waste of resources (including people who could be taught to farm and produce food). When the short-sighted, destructive and wasteful policies of such governments are no more, and people are allowed the freedom, technology, and resources to thrive, food will once again be abundant worldwide.

    Seems pretty clear to me that what you actually said is the only road block to hot and cold running food worldwide is isolationist, corrupt regimes.

    Population growth is the problem, starvation is the symptom.

    I agree and, personally, would have no issue with the cremation thing, although I think that’s more of a cosmetic solution than anything as the land reclaimed or diverted would not be terribly significant nor necessarily usable farmland.

    However, the issue isn’t as simple as starvation and hunger. China and India’s middle class are on the rise and are starting to demand more meat protein, specifically beef and other large livestock. As that demand increases, more and more arable farmland will be dedicated to pasture and still more arable farmland will be used for feed crop rather than food crop, further exacerbating the pressure on staple crops and plunging more of the world into hunger. GM crops or cloned meat can help relieve this pressure by turning previously non-arable into prime agricultural real-estate or reducing the demand for feed crop.

    This is just a single example of the millions of pressures making it harder and harder to feed the billions on the planet at the moment, let alone the billions to come. In the past, agricultural techniques advanced fast enough to be, largely, ahead of the hunger wavefront. But traditional agricultural techniques take time. Selective breeding of traits takes generations to accomplish, if it’s even possible at all to include the trait in a parental generation. All genetic modification of food does is speed that process up and allow the inclusion of heretofore unavailable options, such as corn that can grow in a wider range of conditions. The philosophy is the same and even the methodology isn’t all that different. The process is just faster.

    I’m willing to admit that part of the hunger in the world is directly attributable to isolationist regimes that, for whatever reason, specifically detain food from getting to their people. That’s a problem and it needs to be solved. But that is most certainly not the chief problem nor will its solution lead us into a bright tomorrow where everyone on the planet can eat steak for dinner every night and fresh produce is cheaper than Doritos. Like it or not we are quickly approaching a point where GM crops or cloned animals and even vat-grown meat may be the only options, not because of any desire to help the poor, but because changing environmental conditions will require either a massive redistribution of arable land or crops that grow in less than ideal conditions. We can either embrace this or starve.

  5. Technological improvements have greatly reduced the number of starving people in the world. Some back of the napkin numbers. The population in 1970 was a little more than half what it is today and yet there were more starving people then than there are now. To completeley dismiss improvements that come from genetic modifications is shortsighted at best and cruel at the worst. I agree that bad governments and bad governmental policies don’t help the situation.

    Regarding the “exploding” world population. Yearly percentage growth in population is now about half what what it was 40 years ago . The UN estimates that world population will peak sometime in the latter half of this century and then begin to decline.

  6. To completeley dismiss improvements that come from genetic modifications is shortsighted at best and cruel at the worst.

    I agree. However, I’m not completely dismissing them, I’m advocating a more rigorous regime of testing before effecting our species’ food supply irrevocably.

    I would also like to know what is happening to all of the bees. (Although there seems to be no shortage of them at my house this year.)

  7. I don’t think we’ve reached the point where there are too many people for available resources yet. With respect to food, that will happen when each additional person added to the population corresponds an additional person on earth who is starving. In other words, we have about 6.7 billion people on earth, and 854 million starving. If in, say ten years or so, the population is 7.7 billion, and the number of starving is 1.854 billion, then we will now that we’ve reached the point of overpopulation, and that 6 billion is about the maximum population that can be sustained. I’m guessing we can at least double the figure. I hope that’s the case, because I think the UN is underestimating what the population will be at 2050 (my guess is about 11 billion) and when the population will peak (my guess is at least 15 billion). The problem is, I don’t think we will know for sure what the maximum sustainable population is until we’ve surpassed it.

    As for the current problems, a good part of it is inept and corrupt governments who care more about keeping power than the lives of their citizens. And the other is just a matter of getting the technology available in the poorer areas.

  8. I would also like to know what is happening to all of the bees. (Although there seems to be no shortage of them at my house this year.)

    I forgot about that. I’m guessing the problem will be solved within the next couple of years. If not, then that will lower the maximum sustainable population, unless a viable alternative can be found.

  9. We can either embrace this or starve.

    I couldn’t disagree more. I think we have enough food, just not equitable distribution. My God, enough rice has been donated through the FreeRice game to feed one MILLION people for one day.

    Through a stupid game.

    And with this:

    A U.N. official says the World Food Program is suspending cyclone aid to Myanmar because its government seized supplies flown into the country.

    you’re going to have a hell of a time convincing me that restrictive governments and religious beliefs aren’t, in the majority of cases, at the root of the problem.

  10. I agree that overpopulation is the problem (anyone who does not believe that apparently does not know about the almost exponential population growth in the last 50 years). It is estimated that population will peak in the middle of the next century but in the meantime, the question is will we have pushed the planet to such extremes that our depopulation will be really grusome. I also agree that at present there is no food shortage but a misallocation of food resources. Jamie is right that what we really need is education, (especially for women in the developing countries) if we are to avert disaster. Educated women can make family planning and food allocation choices that uneducated women just can’t.

  11. I never said the food shortages were immediate. What I have been arguing is that a number of different forces are acting on our food supply, everything from the rise of the middle class in China and India to epic droughts in Australia to a misguided push for biofuel from a wholly inappropriate source, and yes even repressive regimes, are putting the global food supply in dire jeopardy. If we don’t act soon in an effort to deal with all these pressures, we will find ourselves in the shit.

    I advocate genetically modifying food, cloning animals and such as one way to avert this looming disaster. Certainly, in addition to that, world pressure needs to be asserted on countries and regions that misallocate and starve their populations. The notion, however, that should all such regimes disappear tomorrow, this would lead to an “abundance” of food is just as short-sighted, in its own way, as current policy.

  12. Hrm . . I don’t have enough info to really decide but I agree with you, QJ, that geneticlly modified food is what humnity has been doing forever. On the other hand, I agree with Jamie that without careful and (unfortunately) prolonged study of the effects of this new bio-technology, it seems unwise to proceed.

  13. I agree that overpopulation is the problem (anyone who does not believe that apparently does not know about the almost exponential population growth in the last 50 years).

    That sounds suspiciously familiar. Oh yeah:

    The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate..

    from The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich (written in 1968).

  14. John, I don’t understand why it sounds familiar, since that is not what I said. I said, at “present there is no food shortage but a misallocation of food resources.”

    Nonetheless, it is estimated that some 800 million people in the world suffer from hunger and malnutrition, about 100 times as many as those who actually die from it each year.

  15. You said that “overpopulation is the problem”. Paul Ehrlich said the same thing (as did Thomas Malthus a few centuries earler)

    it is estimated that some 800 million people in the world suffer from hunger and malnutrition

    And yet there are less hungry people worldwide today than 50 years ago. If overpopulation is the problem, how do you explain that ?

  16. Frankly, humans are the cockroaches of the primate world. The combined population of the other 375 monkey species doesn’t come anywhere near 500 million. Yet, according to the UN projection, the human population will reach 9 billion by 2050. And of course, the “Pat Projection” has us at 11 billion by that time. 🙂

    Now, I’m not saying there won’t be enough food in 2050 or 2150. I’m not the Magic 8 Ball. Nobody knows for certain what will happen with bio-technology. However, I think it is the height of arrogance to assume that there’s no looming problem, especially when the evidence suggests otherwise.

    On a sociological note unrelated to food production, does anyone else find the arguments that allowing gays to have sex will lead to our extinction (or the white supremacist drivel about Europeans being “only” 8-10% of the planet) increasingly absurd? Lets see, if we assume a global population of 11 billion… that is 880 million to 1.1 billion. Uh huh, real annihilation crisis there.

  17. I think it is the height of arrogance to assume that there’s no looming problem, especially when the evidence suggests otherwise.

    Over the past 50 years, population has more than doubled and yet there are less hungry people in the world.

  18. There are three assumptions at work here: A- technological advancement will keep pace with population growth, B- the food will be distributed consistently worldwide, and C- the disparities in supply / demand for particular types of foods (rice, seafood, cattle) won’t create undue hardships for the poor.

    There’s certainly no guarantee that all of these factors will magically align by themselves. That is why we need to manage these things properly through active engagement with farmers, NGOs, and governments.

  19. First step. Eliminate the enormous subsidies for rice (and all other crops) that American farmers (big agribusiness) get.

  20. Overpopulation is the problem. We’ve shown that just feeding the hungry through biotechnology and better food distribution does not end millions of deaths from starvation, as the green revolution promised. Without education and development, we just keep chasing the same problem. Sure its possible to develope revolutionary technology and end the distribuion problem but if history is any guide we would have population that would still out strip them. On the other hand, as history also shows education and development lead to stable populations that can feed themsleves.

  21. Or to quote an old proverb, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for life.’

  22. On page 6 of Collapse by Jared Diamond, he writes this:

    The processes by which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their enviromments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses) water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per capita impact of people.

    We’re talking about all of these, right now. As a “global” society, we are following the trends set forth by the failed civilizations before us. Self-sustainability is the only real solution. And that is not achieved by introducing genetically modified foods at the advanced rate pharmaceuticals are allowed to be introduced.

    Have you seen the study that shows that Great Britain alone throws out 4.4 million apples every day?

    Even worse, families throw away around one third of all the food they buy, according to a study.
    In total, 6.7m tons of food that was once perfectly good to eat is dumped, 40% of it fruit and vegetables. The amount of money spent on this uneaten food adds up to £3bn a year.

    Hell, we could make a large dent in the problem by learning to eat leftovers.

  23. Self-sustainability is the only real solution.

    I am in complete agreement with you. However, I disagree that genetically modified crops can not accomplish this end. Many countries simply don’t have arable land suitable for self-sustaining agriculture. GM crops can help these countries make the best use of their less-than-ideal land, cutting down on their need to import food.

  24. Sounds to me, QJ, that your advocating further damaging ecologically sensitive land in order to support unsustinable population growth. That does not sound wise.

  25. And it sounds to me like you are more concerned about “ecologically sensitive” land than people starving. And I’m still not convinced we have “unsustainable” population growth.

    In Vietnam, the population has increased almost 50% over the past 30 years but that country has gone from a net importer of food to a net exporter because of market reform. Jamie got that part right. Good government policy goes a long way.

  26. Sounds to me like you don’t care about either starving populations or ecologically sensitive land.

    With respect to your question, if it was serious, I refer you my first and fifth comments, above.

  27. I gave you an example of a growing population with less starving people and that means I don’t care about starving people?

    I reread you first and fifth comment. I agree (somewhat). Education is important. But without governmental market reforms and taking advantage of technological improvements all the education in the world isn’t going to help feed anyone. Even with severe limitations on population growth (China’s one child policy), the population still grows.

  28. I said education and development, please see my 5th comment.

    (No, you don’t seem to care because you don’t seem to care about the connection between starvation and destruction of ecologically sensitive land).

  29. Jamie got that part right. Good government policy goes a long way.

    Actually, I got everything right. It just takes the rest of you mere mortals a while to catch up with me.

    If you read my comments from the earlier post on the subject, you will see that I indeed said: The fact is, when we have individual governments and religions–and they’re highly culpable, both–that deny birth control, technology, and resources, then we’re going to have starving people. We need to address the disease, not the symptom.

    If we’re still talking about the cloned meat–and I’m not sure we still are 🙂 –I’m not denying technological advances, only cautioning that when tampering with our foodsources we cannot be too careful. Remember, these are the same people that allow drugs on the market after they cause death, heart attacks, bleeding, and numerous other oh-so-pleasant side effects. THESE are the people we’re going to let watch over our not-fixable-if-it’s-fucked-up food supply?

    I say no thanks. We can find another way.

  30. Jamie said: Actually, I got everything right

    Tru dat. The humble bitch that you are.

    Tommy said: you don’t seem to care about the connection between starvation and destruction of ecologically sensitive land

    and you ignore the connection between increasing prosperity and decreasing starvation.

  31. Sounds to me, QJ, that your advocating further damaging ecologically sensitive land in order to support unsustinable population growth.

    As that’s not what I advocate, let me explain. I’m talking about modifying food or feed crops so that they are heartier and can yield more under less than ideal conditions. Most crops have a very narrow range of environmental conditions that they can thrive in. This can lead to any number of problems, but one of the biggest is emerging economies forced to import food as their arable land cannot supply food crop for their national populations. This inhibits the country’s economy and, in part, dooms them to a continued third world existence.

    By creating crops that can thrive in wider environmental ranges or produce a greater yield, these countries can be given the opportunity to ease the monetary burden of food importation. Not to mention the possibility of creating crops that are naturally resistant to disease or pest infestation, cutting back on the need to definitely dangerous and expensive pesticides in the growth process. On an extreme scale, even water usage could potentially be modified to require less water for thriving agriculture, freeing it up for other uses (and in addition to the energy and food problems, we’re beginning to see a looming water supply problem as well).

  32. QJ – I understand what you are saying. That’s the promise of the green revolution, which as I noted earlier has failed to fulfill its promise because population outstrips it.

    For example, it makes no sense to plow under rainforests, which have notoriously poor agricultural soils, just to grow your new superplants that thrive in these depleated soils which just leads to increased population, which then starves — simulatenously turning rain forests to waste.

    John: “you ignore the connection between increasing prosperity and decreasing starvation”

    No. No I don’t. I said, development and education can eradicate the problem.

  33. Tommy, I think you’re reading something into my position that just isn’t there. Specifically, I’m not suggesting plowing anything under for my superplants. I’m pointing out that through modern genetic modification techniques, land that currently isn’t of use to anybody can become arable, not because the land composition itself is changed, but because the crops themselves are now able to thrive in those conditions. More importantly, however, crops already in arable land can be induced to provide more and better harvests, increasing the efficiency of that land. Or even those same crops being grown in situations that minimize land use while maximizing nutrition and harvest amounts.

    I think it’s a false comparison to say that modern genetic techniques can be equated to the slow processes of the Green Revolution of the 40s through 60s. Indeed, as I’ve pointed out, the difference between the two is primarily speed. While the techniques employed in the 40s and 60s may have indeed been outpaced by population growth, the advanced techniques available now and coming out of the beginning of a bio-revolution argue this may not be the case any longer.

  34. That seems to be wishful thinking. These superplants do nothing to address the underlying tendency to merely create more demands by increased population that must surely follow more food. Or do you think that population on this planet can grow infinately? If population cannot grow infinately, merely creating an infinate amount of food will lead to much worse human suffering.

  35. All this talk about “infants” growing and food shortages… just do what we do at our house guys, feed the kids a balanced diet with moderate fiber and, presto, everything gets resolved in 4-5 hours.

    You don’t need superplants for little infants. Our planet can grow infants, breeders have been doing it for eons.

  36. These superplants do nothing to address the underlying tendency to merely create more demands by increased population that must surely follow more food

    At the very least they give more breathing space and give emergent countries the chance to expand and develop their economies and hopefully their educational programs. As you’ve pointed out, more education in a population tends to decrease their reproduction or at least make that reproduction “smarter”.

    You and Jamie are both correct that there are several fronts to be addressed and I’ve agreed with that time and again. But there is no “magic bullet” that is going to address all of these problems in one go and it’s an unfair and unproductive metric to expect any one solution to do so. Will GM foods solve the whole of the problem by themselves? No, but they can be a valuable tool in the complete arsenal that may.

  37. Will GM foods solve the whole of the problem by themselves? No, but they can be a valuable tool in the complete arsenal that may.

    As for myself, I agree. I think mainly where you and I differ, QJ, is on the timeline, and on who does the monitoring of the studies. I trust the FDA as much as I trust Jeff Gannon.

  38. With the proviso (there must be one, of course) that as I believe, as Jamie’s British article demonstrates, there is no food shortage — so the real heavy lifting for humanity is not in food technology but in distribution, developement and education.

  39. Wow, did we really used to have conversations this substantive here? *sniff* I miss the good ol’ days of spouting my opinion without care.

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