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A Win-Win For Hungry Africans And Environmentalists

Environmentalists resist science that can feed the hungry while reducing carbon emissions.


In 1980, if one lived on a subsistence farm in Pennsylvania, there was good reason to be pessimistic about the future of food. The world was worried about starvation, “Soylent Green” had been a hit in theaters and on television, and in nonfiction books, and doomsday prophet Dr. Paul Ehrlich had co-authored 1977’s “Ecoscience” with Dr. John Holdren (who is currently President Obama’s Science Czar), which outlined a future of involuntary birth control to solve the looming population crisis and how it could be legal under the U.S. Constitution.

But instead of food riots in the 1980s, a technological miracle occurred. American science defied environmental predictions and discovered new ways to boost farming. American farmers quickly embraced the modern world. Crop yields went up while land use and environmental strain went down. Today, no one worries about a population bomb—environmentalists instead worry about greenhouse-gas emissions due to producing too much food.

We can now produce so much food that the world’s population has no realistic limits, and the Africa that once needed Live-Aid concerts to raise money to buy grain is so close to being able to fend for itself that environmentalists are raising alarms about Africa’s agricultural CO2  emissions.

There is a solution to both issues. It used to be that growing more food was a simple equation: more farms, less forests. That is not the case anymore. If the rest of the world accepted food science the way the United States does, a region the size of Amazonia could be reverted to nature with no decrease in yield.

But there is cultural pressure from First-World environmentalists to not allow modern science, such as genetic modification, in Africa. They claim if Africa frees its people from reliance on outside help it will amplify negative environmental effects, raising CO2 emissions and accelerating deforestation.

Let’s Test Your Proposition

A recent study tested that idea. Thomas Hertel, Navin Ramankutty, and Uris Lantz Baldos simulated agricultural technology improvements and calculated what effects those would have on global carbon emissions by 2050. The result was counterintuitive. They found that African agricultural expansion could add up to 267,000,000 metric tons of global carbon emissions, which is equivalent to adding 56,000,000 cars in the 25-year period between 2025 and 2050.

How can that be? Without modern science, Africa would need to add 4.4 million acres of farmland to feed itself. Organic farming is fine for California, but much of Africa does not have ideal soil, water, or climate. Science is the great equalizer. Without it, their crop-to-emissions ratio would be a negative compared to the American farms that take advantage of advanced crop science.

Hertel, Ramankutty, and Baldos’s model showed that if African food production improves because modern science is the norm, any negative effects from Africa feeding itself would diminish quickly.

Slightly higher short-term emissions for fewer emissions long-term should be a worthwhile compromise for environmental activists, especially since it would reduce so much suffering among Africans, yet environmentalists are those most likely to oppose science. Enabling Africans to feed themselves is certainly much better than putting food on emissions-belching boats and planes and shipping it to them.

Letting Africa embrace science, rather than promoting fear and doubt, is the most humanitarian thing environmentalists could do.