Friday, 18 April 2014

Feed the world

It is common to claim that farmers are losing the race to feed the world. The world's population is projected to hit 9 billion by 2050 - how on earth are we going to manage? Conferences, feature articles, and modelling is underway, with most of the focus being on how to increase yields and stop those pesky greenies ruining things.

Just last week in NZ, William Rolleston (who is expected to be the next president of Federated Farmers) told us that we are morally obliged to embrace genetically modified food because of this "feed the world" problem.

It seems that this whole line of argument is rubbish. Either these people haven't looked at the data or they are engaging in some kind of big lie strategy. The following chart shows FAO data on world food balances for the most recent 20 years available.
World Food Production Per Capita Per Day (Source:FAO)

The green line shows the world's population (in billions, using the right hand scale) growing inexorably. The red line shows that even though population has been growing, we are still producing more food per person.. In 2009, world production of food was 2831KCal per person per day.

The FAO's minimum recommended food intake is 1800KCal/person/day. Food needs vary with age and gender so the total requirement depends on the age profile of the population. To make the chart I used the Australian guidance which is 2079 KCal/day on average. If that is a reasonable figure, we can use it to calculate how many people the world could have fed with the food actually produced. That's the purple line in the chart.

Conclusion: the world can already feed 9 billion people. If there is a problem here, it is not a shortage of food.

Friday, 11 April 2014

We'll never be royals

Further to my last post, suggesting a market mechanism for allocating royalty rights, it has come to my attention that some people are confused about how one actually gets to be royal under the current system.

Hopefully this clip will clarify things....

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Making the monarchy fun

The occasional visit of our beloved rulers from England always stirs up that tired old debate between royalists and republicans. So it is timely to remind ourselves of a better alternative to both sides of the argument – a third way, if you like.

Let’s start with what’s wrong with both of these positions. Royalists are basically old school sycophants yearning for what they see as the glory days of the British Empire, and others see as naked colonialist aggression. Royalists are besotted not with royalty in general, but with this particular lot. So they don’t really mind that the Queen’s husband is an incorrigible racist or that they’re all inbred.

Republicans on the other hand seem to want us to vote for a head of state, which raises the serious risk that the person who wins the election might actually have, or claim to have, some kind of popular mandate. I don’t personally think our democracy works very well, but neither do I think this would help in any way.

What about the positives? Here the royalists could at least claim an economic impact from a royal visit. I bet they’d be able to find economic consultants who’d gladly estimate some massive benefit from all the extra buying of newspapers, magazines, advertising, souvenir tat etc. They might even argue that the taxpayer funding of the visit “facilitates” or “sustains” some GDP and jobs or helps promote New Zealand to the world.

It’s harder to see any big gains from the republican approach. Some of us would benefit from not being exposed to all the fawning bullshit, but it seems that other people actually like that stuff. Maybe you could argue that our democracy would be less corrupted by, for example arranging royal tours in election years. But there would still be scope for similar shenanigans in a republic.

Moving on. Here’s the plan. We put the monarchy out to tender, say every five years. Anyone can bid, and the basic deal is that you have zero actual power, you pay the full cost of all tours etc, but other than that you can write your own script. Tenders will need to include proposals for tours (maybe an annual frequency to crank up the economic impact?), an indication of the kind of pomp and razamatazz envisaged (crowns, gowns etc), the proposed titles and means of address (emperor, sultan, poobah, whatever) and of course the proposed annual fee payable to the people of New Zealand. 

This would be just the thing for a billionaire or oligarch looking for a bit of extra adulation. We might want to add a screening test to exclude real ratbags, but most of the super-rich wouldn’t fall into that category. The main benefit though is to make the monarchy much more interesting. There would be a whole new team to investigate every five years for a start. So we’d be able to sell a lot more magazines and newspapers and souvenir tat. The whole industry would explode, because we’d have follow-up stories on how the previous lot are getting on, and forward looking pieces about who might bid next time. And best of all, they’d pay us instead of us paying them.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Are we being milked?

Why are NZ taxpayers shovelling $48.5m to research looking for "direct ways to reduce emissions without reducing agricultural output", without hunting out potential market failures first, let alone directing the ca$h that way? I'm not sure...

Here's a starter, which I guess was fed to the media by the scientists receiving our ca$h, who want good PR at a time when their supply is being reviewed. The interesting bit is the list of topics they've been working on:
  • a vaccine and compounds that could be added to feed to reduce methane emissions;
  • breeding sheep and cattle that produce lower emissions;
  • screening plants for their ability to reduce nitrous oxide emissions; and
  • how plants with different attributes, such as deep roots, can increase the amount of carbon stored in soil.
This is a bit suspect is it not? The first two are obviously commercially bankable research projects, and I'd bet that all or most of the resulting IP will be privately owned from them. Why are we subsidising this? I can't see any market failure here - these people are already putting their own money into the research. Why exactly do they need a subsidy?

But also: opportunity cost.
But first: relevance

Agriculture probably is the most important industry in NZ and we kiwis probably are more dependent on agriculture than any other 'developed' country. Climate change will impact our agricultural production massively. So if there was anywhere that NZ desperately needed innovation, surely it would be agriculture, now.

Its OK therefore, in principle, to spend of $48.5m of our money on "finding direct ways to reduce emissions without reducing agricultural output". I could even tolerate a few rorts like those IP projects if the search for options was wide enough.

But it isn't. The idea of farming in a different way, like the way we and many others do, is just not being considered, I think. Yet there are reasonable grounds for investigating their potential for carbon sequestration. Done well, biological/organic farming can grow rather than deplete the organic matter (carbon) in the soil.

David Whitehead seems like the guy in the $48.5m pipeline that would be responsible for assessing the potential for biological farming to sequester carbon. I hope he'll shortly reply to my emails and tell me how they are assessing the radically different approaches of biological/organic farmers. But I'm not holding my breath.

Following my earlier post about William Rolleston, I emailed to ask him directly about where in this new "collaborative" science funding model that he helped to develop was the ca$h going to investigate and further develop these biological/organic methods (as distinct from subsidising biotech investors). In response, he pointed me to the Biological Husbandary Unit at Lincoln, which does great work. However I have since discovered that it gets basically zero percent of these taxpayer research funds. So if Dr Rolleston's actual plan was that research funding would seek truth and value wherever it may lie, then its not working very well.

In summary, it really looks as though we are taxpayers being milked by commercial interests. That'd be bad enough, but in addition the funding is ignoring serious research opportunities into promising alternative farming systems. Our ag research funds seem to be mainly going to investors that want to sell stuff to farmers, preferably under the protection of patents that taxpayers have funded.

If this is true, its a terrible scandal. I keep hoping to find out that I'm wrong, but it hasn't happened yet.