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V. Meeting Essential Human Needs:

Part 2


Besides water and shelter, food is the single most important need for humanity. Humanity's existence depends on it. Food is renewable, but it is scarce in many regions of the world. That does not mean, however, that the world is running out of food. The Population Bomb, written in 1967 by Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, predicted massive starvation in the 1970s and 1980s because of overpopulation. However, that starvation never happened because of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution is the application of genetic improvement, fertilization and pesticides which more than doubled the yield of many crops.
Cereal Production Graph

Figure 1 1961-2003 World and United States grain (cereal) production and yields per hectare for the years 1961-2003. Source: UN FAO, FAOSTAT Agriculture Data, February, 2004.

Food Production

Since the Green Revolution in the early 1960s, the world's cereal (grain) production has increased by 136 percent - from 877 million metric tons per year to 2068 million in 20031 (Figure 1). Grain yields increased by 129 percent over the same period, from 1.4 to 3.1 metric tons per hectare. Total grain production in the United States (U.S.) also doubled - from 164 million metric tons in 1961 up to 349 million in 2003, accounting for 17 percent of the total global grain production. At the same time, overall U.S. grain crop yields doubled from 2.5 to 5.9 metric tons per hectare, an increase of 136 percent and almost double the global average. Europe experienced similar gains.

Developing nations have seen the greatest gains in total grain production over the past 50 years as they applied agricultural technologies developed in the West, primarily from the U.S. Many developing nations have reaped the benefits of the Green Revolution without the high research costs of doing so. Although their absolute yields per hectare in developing countries are still well below those seen in the U.S. and Europe (many nations still lag behind in applying the technology), the roughly 130 percent increase in yields has resulted in a 138 percent increase in total grain production.

Importantly, these ever-larger cereal crops were produced on essentially the same land area. During the 1961-2003 period, the world's cereal grain crop area increased by only 2.8 percent to 666 million hectares. Conversely, the area upon which the U.S. grew its cereals actually declined by 11 percent, from 65 to 57.8 million hectares.2 Part of this is due to increased U.S. productivity. However, increased self-sufficiency in developing nations, plus unfavorable international trade agreements also work against many U.S. farmers, thereby limiting export opportunities. This is both bad and good. Because the U.S. is producing more food than it can consume or export, its higher yields have allowed marginal land to be taken out of production. Much of this land has returned to forests and other wildlife habitat. In other words, the Green Revolution has permitted marginal land to revert to forests, savannah, and grasslands - habitat to species that otherwise might become endangered.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the U.S. free marketplace has made it possible for many developing nations to feed themselves. The U.S. has also shown how greater yields can help biodiversity, and therefore sustainability, by converting marginal farmland back to a more natural condition. Additionally, while the U.S. is criticized for having only five percent of the world's population yet consumes some 25 percent of the world's oil (17 percent of the world's overall energy consumption), the U.S. produces 17 percent of the world's food. While this is down from 19 percent 30 years ago, it is mostly a reflection of the major increases in non-U.S. cereal grain production from the U.S.-led Green Revolution.
Cereal Production per Capita

Figure 2 Global cereal production per capita for 1961-2003. Source: UN FAO, FAOSTAT Agriculture Data, February, 2004.

Many environmental organizations claim that the benefits from the Green Revolution are fading, and in some cases actually declining.3 These claims are false and misleading. While per capita grain production has leveled off globally, as shown in Figure 2, it has done so for a number of reasons unrelated to the ability to grow more food. U.S. and EU markets are near saturation. They are growing all the food their own citizens can eat and exports are declining as developing nations are producing more of their own food. Additionally, the early 1990s were bad for global grain production because the centrally-controlled societies of the Soviet Union collapsed, causing a major drop in their grain production of almost 40 percent - from supplying almost 17 percent of the worlds grain to less than 10 percent.4
Calorie Graph

Figure 3 Total food production in calories per person per day is more has increased by 25 percent since 1961 and is more than sufficient to feed every person on earth 2800 calories per day. Source: FAOSTAT Agriculture Data: Food Supply, Crops, Primary Equivalent. February, 2004.

At the same time the EU restructured its Common Agricultural Policy to reduce subsidies that contribute to overproduction, resulting in a 15 percent decline in cereal crop area and a 5 percent decline in total EU grain production. While global per capita cereal production has declined slightly, per capita production has continued to increase in developing nations. "Thus," as Bjorn Lomborg states, "only showing the global decline merely masks the fact that ever more people in the developing world get more and more food."5

The U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) specifically states that the decline in global cereal production per capita is "no cause for general alarm."6 The 2004 FAOSTAT data in Figure 3 reveal a steady increase in total calories available per person, reaching 2800 cal/day by 2001, well above the 2300 cal/person/day generally used as the minimum necessary to enable a person to lead an active and healthy life.7

In spite of this global good news, nearly 850 million people went to bed hungry each night at the end of 2003.8 Some tout these statistics as "proof" that the world's food supply is inadequate for the earth's growing human population. Again, however, this is a gross distortion of the facts.

Although hunger and starvation still occur in many parts of the world, insufficient food production is not the cause. The world has produced more than enough food to feed all of humanity for decades. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day.9 Rather, it is poverty, wars, corrupt governments, poor transportation and infrastructure systems, lack of private property rights, or policies of deliberate starvation of political opponents that prevent people from producing or delivering food to places where people need it. Once again, wealth creation is at the heart of the solution. In turn, wealth creation depends upon governments free from corruption, legally formalized property rights, and free markets.


Critics of modern agriculture charge that its use causes excessive soil erosion, resulting in unsustainable losses of topsoil that will soon result in equally devastating losses in crop productivity. Yet, studies indicate that in temperate climates the productivity losses even from past high rates of soil erosion extended for the next 100 years would only reduce crop yields by 2 to 4 percent.10 Given the tremendous advances in soil conserving farming practices such as no-tillage farming, made possible on more hectares and more crops through advances in biotechnology, even these modest productivity losses seem unlikely.

As for tropical and other soils, the FAO notes that while there is widespread evidence of soil erosion exceeding 50 tonnes/hectare in some areas, the impact of erosion on "crop yields or production has not been well established in physical terms though there have been many attempts to do so. The relationship between erosion and productivity loss is more complex than previously thought."11 Yield loss in one area may be compensated by gains further down the slope, valley or plain, where the soil is eventually deposited. This is especially true for wind erosion.

The FAO has also found that although: has commonly been blamed for much of the silt load of rivers, whereas it is now considered that a substantial proportion results from upward and ongoing movements in the earth's crust. In China, for example, whereas the severe erosion of the loess [highly fertile wind deposited soils] plateau was once attributed largely to man's activities, and is still presented in these terms by some observers, it is now thought that over 60 percent of the erosion is due to such movements.12

Many commentators fail to realize that rivers and streams have inherent energy levels and will carry a certain amount of sediment and silt no matter what erosion measures are taken. Measures that reduce sediment availability and/or streamload will increase the river's energy level and cause additional sediment to be picked up downstream. This is the basis for the above observation.

Even so, in a survey cosponsored by the United Nations Environmental Program nearly 200 soil experts found that about 38 percent of all agricultural land is degraded to some extent, 20 percent moderately and 6 percent strongly.13 However, the author reported three years later the estimates for South and Southeast Asia, where there exists the most serious degradation, were less serious than originally indicated.14

Farmers depend on the soil for their livelihoods, and do not willingly cause damage unless they are just too poor to use modern technology or are forced via poverty and lack of land tenure to farm steep lands that simply shouldn't be farmed, such as in some parts of Central America. Modern agriculture techniques dramatically reduce soil erosion and losses. While soil loss exceeds 50 tonnes/hectare in some areas of the world, water-caused soil movement (not loss) was estimated to be only 6.3 tonnes/hectare in the U.S. in 2001 - down from 9.2 tonnes/hectare in 1982.15

Movement of soil due to wind accounts for another 4.9 and 7.6 tonnes/hectare for 2001 and 1982, respectively. It is unclear how much soil is actually lost from farmed land by wind, although the available evidence indicates that it is a small fraction of the estimated soil moved.16 Overall, scientists estimate that the U.S. will lose only about 3 percent of its soil over the next 100 years. However, "by comparison with yield gains expected from advances in technology, the 3 percent erosion-induced loss is trivial."17


As discussed more thoroughly under the subject of "toxins" in Chapter IV, a number of activists decry the use of pesticides and claim that hundreds of Americans, and numerous others from around the world, die each year from their use. While we must treat all pesticides and concentrated chemicals with respect, there is hard evidence that the real cancer mortality in the U.S. from pesticide use is quite low - with at most 20 people dying out of 560,000 exposed to pesticides annually.18 Most of these few result from the careless handling or use of these concentrated chemicals by factory workers, farm workers, and exterminators, often decades ago before safety measures were in place. In the U.S., experts say the greatest cause of cancer is smoking and diet. When all causes of cancer are examined, those estimated to result from pesticide exposures (including occupational) are barely a blip in the data, as is shown in Figure 4.
Cancer Chart

Figure 4 Cancer mortality resulting from the use of pesticides is less than 0.1 percent of cancer mortality from other sources, most of which are controllable by the individuals themselves in their own decisions. Source: Doll, Richard and Richard Peto. "The causes of cancer: quantitative estimates of avoidable risks of cancer in the United States today." Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1981 66(6):1256

Nonetheless, anti-pesticide activists invoke the precautionary principle in their calls for banning pesticides. The precautionary principle holds that if a technology, like the use of pesticides, may cause damage sometime in the future, its use should be banned or restricted until it is proven absolutely safe. Unfortunately, this includes about any human activity. Additionally, the precautionary principle does not allow for the Law of Unintended Consequences and would ban or restrict virtually all technologies.

For instance, scientists have thoroughly investigated the carcinogenic properties of thousands of chemicals and have found that the greatest risk of cancer comes, not from man-made pesticides, but from pesticide-like chemicals produced naturally by plants. Figure 5 shows that the risk of cancer from two natural chemicals (caffeic acid and catechol) in one cup of coffee, which hundreds of millions of people drink daily, has 60 times more cancer-causing potential than a persons daily exposure to DDT prior to its ban in 1972. In 2002, a person's daily DDT exposure is only 1/1,500th of the cancer risk from coffee. Even more dramatic, the pre-ban DDT exposure had only 1/900th of the cancer-causing potential from the alcohol in a single beer, or 1/22,500 for 2002 exposures. DDT almost eradicated malaria in tropical countries in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Scare stories that it might cause cancer in humans and be a threat to wildlife caused the widespread banning of DDT in the 1970s. However, since it was banned, tens of millions of people have died from malaria carried by mosquitoes. There isn't even a hint of environmental problems from spraying small quantities of DDT inside homes to prevent malaria in developing countries.
Cancer Risk Chart

Figure 5 The standard HERP test for determining cancer risk shows coffee has a cancer risk 50 times greater than DDT. DDT was banned in the 1970s because it might harm people and wildlife. Meantime, tens of millions of impoverished people have perished from Malaria that was previously controlled by DTT. Source: Ames, Bruce N. and Lois S. Gold. 1998. "The causes and prevention of cancer: the role of environment." Biotherapy 11:205-20.

There are more subtle examples. The use of agricultural pesticides, for instance, greatly reduces the cost of food by reducing pest losses and conserving agricultural resources. Banning pesticides will increase food costs substantially and make the growing of some crops completely unfeasible. Even many organic farmers use pesticides.

Often, the first thing people who cannot afford higher food prices forgo is the perceived luxury of eating fruits and vegetables. Since fruits and vegetables significantly reduce cancer risks, a dietary decrease of fruits and vegetables of just 10 percent in the U.S. would cause an increase in cancer deaths of about 26,000.19 Simple math shows the magnitude of this unintended consequence. In essence, it could be argued that saving, at most, 20 lives per year in the U.S. by banning pesticides could result in the net loss of 26,000 lives because higher food costs prevent people from buying and eating the fruits and vegetables they must have to lower their cancer risk. From a human as well as economic cost-benefit analysis, the case for eliminating pesticides is very weak.

In spite of this overwhelming evidence of their benefits, some environmentalists continue to insist on banning the use of non-organic-approved pesticides, especially in Third World countries where pesticides could save millions of lives. Paul Driessen, author of Eco-Imperialism laments: have an uncanny ability to ignore or deny the horrendous misery and death toll their attitudes impose on the world's poor. They simply cite their standard pseudo-theological dogma: "We're saving the planet from big business, bad technology, and rampant overpopulation. We're protecting birds from pesticides." To which my Ugandan friend Fiona Kobusingye replies: "I lost two sisters, two nephews, and my son to malaria. Don't talk to me about birds."20


Increased farm trade could also help importantly to produce more food from less land in the future, thereby conserving resources and improving human well-being. Tropical sugar yields, for example, are often double the yields of temperate-zone beet sugar growers. At the same time, temperate-zone farmers' grain yields are often double those of tropical farmers. Both sides win if temperature countries import cane sugar and tropical countries import some of their grain needs in free markets. French rain-fed farms tend to produce more per acre than India's non-irrigated farms, due to both moisture shortage and tropical pest pressures.

Grass-fed cattle tend to be more economical than grain-fed, and the world should use the grass resources sustainably, whether they are in the American Great Plains, the African Sahel, or the Australian outback.

Most countries have traditionally tried to prevent food imports because they trigger political protests from local farmers. Such import barriers impose a heavy burden on the urban poor, and an intolerable burden on environmental resources in densely-populated countries. Farm subsidies in the rich countries have given poor, densely-populated countries an additional excuse for continuing import barriers, even as they prevented the developing country farmers from earning their own economic growth by exporting the food and fiber they produce efficiently. At the same time, the subsidies have aggravated the environmental problems caused by inefficient agriculture, such as the needless water pollution from sugar cane production in the Florida Everglades, while Brazil is unable to find markets for its low-cost and environmentally sound sugar production.

On the other side of the equation, stringent government regulations on the use of pesticides and genetically modified foods as well as onerous environmental laws regarding wetlands, clean water, and endangered species, among others, have hampered the competitiveness of farmers in rich countries and caused ill-will toward those in the developing world who are unencumbered by such restrictions. Subsidies are thus often justified as a "leveling" mechanism to assist the farmers of North America, Europe and Japan with what is often felt to be unfair competition.

Unfortunately, many environmental laws in developed nations often lack a scientific basis and fail in any measurable degree to improve either public health or the environment where they are imposed, and thus ought to be either reformed or repealed. Government initiatives to lessen burdensome regulation and maximize market incentives should be pursued either before, or concurrently with, efforts to end subsidies, so as not to cause undue hardship on First World farmers. In addition, policies in the developing world ought to be improved, where necessary, to reflect better health and environmental standards.

The free trade fostered by GAT and the World Trade Organization has been able to lower the average tariff on non-farm products from about 40 percent to 4 percent over the past 50 years. However, the average farm product tariff is still more than 60 percent. For the sake of both the urban poor and the environment in developed and developing countries, both farm subsidies and onerous regulations around the globe need to be radically constrained.

Summary of Food

In summary, studies from FAO, USDA and others all show that there is no agricultural crisis or scarcity of food. Everything points to cheaper, more plentiful food and fiber, especially if nations of the world continue to cautiously increase their use of biotechnology. All in all, never has the future for mankind and the earth's environment been brighter. The key to unlocking this bright future is, as always, individual freedom, property rights, the curtailing of corruption, and free markets.

With its insistence on increasing the size and scope of government regulation through its version of "sustainable development," Agenda 21 is a recipe for failure and invites abuse and corruption. Heavily influenced by special interest NGOs, Driessen contends the kind of sustainable development propagated by Agenda 21 "violates people's most basic human rights in furtherance of their own political agendas. It's morally reprehensible, it's lethal, and it has to end."21 In fact, rather than benefiting people, it is highly probable that such governance will cause deterioration in the condition of both mankind and the environment. We have a choice. Agenda 21 or Freedom 21; and that choice is ours.


Policy Recommendations

  1. In the United States, turn the power to enforce regulations from the federal agencies to the states. Bureaucratic abuses and quagmires become more prevalent the further they are removed from the people. Regulations to protect individuals as well as the public are necessary, but regulators need to be accountable to the people they regulate. Always, the consent of the governed is paramount.
  2. Eliminate arbitrary and capricious regulations for mineral/oil extraction in the United States. Arbitrary and constantly changing environmental regulations represent one of the greatest impediments for developing critical minerals and oil.
  3. The United Nations should not establish an international environmental regulatory regime. Moving the regulators from the national to international level will further hamper the effectiveness of good making - for the reasons noted above.
  4. In addition to facilitating investments by international energy and agriculture companies, laws should focus on encouraging risk-taking on the part of smaller entrepreneurs. The United Nations, as well as all nations, must design international treaties and national laws to help both large and small businesses secure property rights for collateral and production, as well as expand in the area of research and development.
  5. National and international laws and treaties must recognize broad property rights. Governments around the world, including the United States, must grant farmers strong property rights to provide political stability that protects their high-risk investment from potentially corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.
  6. International trading regimes must remain science-based in their regulation of trade in agricultural products. Trade barriers based on ideology rather than science have already demonstrated themselves to be serious barriers to the improvement of productivity in developing countries, increasing poverty and environmental degradation.
  7. Efforts to reform rich countries' farm production subsidies and Third World farm import barriers are urgently needed. All countries should attempt to reform agricultural policies which discourage farm trade

Home | Preface | Contrast Between Freedom 21 and Agenda 21 | I The Importance of People

II Land Issues and Property | III Air and Water Issues

III Air and Water Issues: Part 2 | IV Chemicals and Management of Waste

V Meeting Essential Human Needs | V Meeting Essential Human Needs: Part 2

Notes and Citations

1 FAOSTAT Agriculture Data: Agricultural Production, Crops Primary, February, 2004. The actual information was taken from the FAO query page at Crops.Primary&Domain=Production&servlet=1&language=EN&hostname=

2 Ibid.

3 Bjorn Lomborg, p. 95.

4 Ibid. Per capita data calculated by dividing production per year by the world population for that year. FAOSTAT Agriculture Data: Agricultural Production, Crops Primary, February, 2004. The actual information was taken from the FAO query page at Primary&Domain=Production&servlet=1&language=EN&hostname=

5 Bjorn Lomborg, p. 94.

6 Nikos Alexandratos (ed.). World Agriculture: Towards 2010. An FAO Study. FAO 1995 7 Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

7 FAOSTAT Agriculture Data: Food Supply, Crops, Primary Equivalent. February, 2004. The actual information was taken from the FAO query page at Products&Domain=FS&servlet=1&hasbulk=&version=ext&language=EN

8 "Hunger Rising Again in Developing Nations." Associated Press, November 25, 2003. In: Global Health Council.

9 World Hunger Facts 2005. World Hunger Education Service (WHES). December 24, 2004. Also, Reducing Poverty And Hunger: The Critical Role Of Financing For Food, Agriculture And Rural Development. Food and Agriculture Association, et. al., February 2002.

10 F. Pierce et al.., J. Soil Water Conserv. 39, 131 (1984), The Second RCA Appraisal: Soil, Water, and Related Resources on Nonfederal Land in the United States (USDA, Washington, DC, 1989).

11 Nikos Alexandratos (ed.). World Agriculture: Towards 2010. An FAO Study (New York, Brisbane, Toronto, Singapore: John Wiley and Sons,1995), p. 357 Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

12 Ibid.

13 L.R. Oldman. "The Global Extent of Soil Degradation." In Greenland and Szabolcs. Soil Resilience and Sustainable Land Use (Wallingford, UK:CAB International, 1994) pp. 99-118.

14 G.W.J. Van Lynden and L.R. Oldman. The Assessment of the Status of Human-Induced Soil Degradation in South and Southeast Asia. International Soil Reference and Information Centre.

15 Farm Facts. American Farm Bureau, p. 12.
Converted from tons/acre to tonnes/hectare. Also, Soil Erosion, National Resources Inventory - 2001 Annual NRI, US Department of Agriculture, p. 1.

16 Stanley Trimble. "Decreased Rates of Alluvial Sediment Storage in the Coon Creek Basin, Wisconsin, 1975-93." Science 1999, vol. 285, no. 5431, pp. 1244-1246d.

17 Nikos Alexandratos (ed.). World Agriculture: Towards 2010. An FAO Study (New York, Brisbane, Toronto, Singapore: John Wiley and Sons, 1995), p. 119. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. developed%20countries:%20prospective%20developments%20in%20brief

18 Len Ritter, Clark Heath Jr., Elizabeth Kaegi, Howard Morrison and Susan Sieber. "Report of a Panel on the Relationship Between Public Exposure to Pesticides and Cancer." Cancer, 1997, 80:2,027

19 Bjorn Lomborg. The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 247.

20 "Q & A With Paul Driessen," CEI's Monthly Planet, Competitive Enterprises Institute, January/February 2004, Vol. 17(1):6

21 Ibid, p. 7. [an error occurred while processing this directive]