Tag Archives: Economist

Brazilian agriculture

1)The Economist writes about the success of large scale Brazil agriculture in Brazilian agriculture: The miracle of the cerrado. The article concludes:

The bigger question for them is: can the miracle of the cerrado be exported, especially to Africa, where the good intentions of outsiders have so often shrivelled and died?

There are several reasons to think it can. Brazilian land is like Africa’s: tropical and nutrient-poor. The big difference is that the cerrado gets a decent amount of rain and most of Africa’s savannah does not (the exception is the swathe of southern Africa between Angola and Mozambique).

Brazil imported some of its raw material from other tropical countries in the first place. Brachiaria grass came from Africa. The zebu that formed the basis of Brazil’s nelore cattle herd came from India. In both cases Embrapa’s know-how improved them dramatically. Could they be taken back and improved again? Embrapa has started to do that, though it is early days and so far it is unclear whether the technology retransfer will work.

A third reason for hope is that Embrapa has expertise which others in Africa simply do not have. It has research stations for cassava and sorghum, which are African staples. It also has experience not just in the cerrado but in more arid regions (called the sertão), in jungles and in the vast wetlands on the border with Paraguay and Bolivia. Africa also needs to make better use of similar lands. “Scientifically, it is not difficult to transfer the technology,” reckons Dr Crestana. And the technology transfer is happening at a time when African economies are starting to grow and massive Chinese aid is starting to improve the continent’s famously dire transport system.

Still, a word of caution is in order. Brazil’s agricultural miracle did not happen through a simple technological fix. No magic bullet accounts for it—not even the tropical soyabean, which comes closest. Rather, Embrapa’s was a “system approach”, as its scientists call it: all the interventions worked together. Improving the soil and the new tropical soyabeans were both needed for farming the cerrado; the two together also made possible the changes in farm techniques which have boosted yields further.

Systems are much harder to export than a simple fix. “We went to the US and brought back the whole package [of cutting-edge agriculture in the 1970s],” says Dr Crestana. “That didn’t work and it took us 30 years to create our own. Perhaps Africans will come to Brazil and take back the package from us. Africa is changing. Perhaps it won’t take them so long. We’ll see.” If we see anything like what happened in Brazil itself, feeding the world in 2050 will not look like the uphill struggle it appears to be now.

2) On the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog Luigi responds to the Economist article, in a post Is there really no downside to Brazil’s agricultural miracle?.  He praises their coverage of agriculture, but lambasting their blindness to the consideration of social and ecological costs.  He writes:

It points out that the astonishing increase in crop and meat production in Brazil in the past ten to fifteen year — and it is astonishing, more that 300% by value — has come about due to an expansion in the amount of land under the plow, sure, but much more so due to an increase in productivity. It rightly heaps praise on Embrapa, Brazil’s agricultural research corporation, for devising a system that has made the cerrado, Brazil’s hitherto agronomically intractable savannah, so productive. It highlights the fact that a key part of that system is improved germplasm — of Brachiaria, soybean, zebu cattle — originally from other parts of the world, incidentally helping make the case for international interdependence in genetic resources.1 And much more.

What it resolutely does not do is give any sense of the cost of all this. …  I was really thinking of environmental and social costs. The Economist article says that Brazil is “often accused of levelling the rainforest to create its farms, but hardly any of this new land lies in Amazonia; most is cerrado.” So that’s all right then. No problem at all if 50% of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots has been destroyed.2 After all, it’s not the Amazon. A truly comprehensive overview of Brazil’s undoubted agricultural successes would surely cast at least a cursory look at the downside, if only to say that it’s all been worth it.

3) Holly Gibbs and colleagues have a new paper in PNAS – Tropical forests were the primary sources of new agricultural land in the 1980s and 1990s (doi/10.1073/pnas.0910275107).  They write:

This study confirms that rainforests were the primary source for new agricultural land throughout the tropics during the 1980s and 1990s. More than 80% of new agricultural land came from intact and disturbed forests. Although differences occur across the tropical forest belt, the basic pattern is the same: The majority of the land for agricultural and tree plantation expansion comes from forests, woodlands, and savannas, not from previously cleared lands.

Worldwide demand for agricultural products is expected to increase by ~50% by 2050, and evidence suggests that tropical countries will be called on to meet much of this demand. Consider, for example, that in developed countries the agricultural land area, including pastures and permanent croplands, decreased by more than 412 million ha (34%) between 1995 and 2007, whereas developing countries saw increases of nearly 400 million ha (17.1%) (14, 42). Moreover, developing countries expanded their permanent croplands by 10.1% during the current decade alone, while permanent cropland areas in developed countries remained generally stable (14). If the agricultural expansion trends documented here for 1980 2000 persist, we can expect major clearing of intact and disturbed forest to continue and increase across the tropics to help meet swelling demands for food, fodder, and fuel.

Income, fertility and the world’s demographic trajectory

Avg. Income vs. Fertility from Gapminder

data from Gapminder

The Economists looks at recent declines in fertility discusses current projections of world population, and how changes in a country’s demographic structure shape its economic development (but it doesn’t mention the role of urbanization).  In Fertility and living standards it writes:

Sometime in the next few years (if it hasn’t happened already) the world will reach a milestone: half of humanity will be having only enough children to replace itself. That is, the fertility rate of half the world will be 2.1 or below. This is the “replacement level of fertility”, the magic number that causes a country’s population to slow down and eventually to stabilise. According to the United Nations population division, 2.9 billion people out of a total of 6.5 billion were living in countries at or below this point in 2000-05. The number will rise to 3.4 billion out of 7 billion in the early 2010s and to over 50% in the middle of the next decade. The countries include not only Russia and Japan but Brazil, Indonesia, China and even south India.

The move to replacement-level fertility is one of the most dramatic social changes in history. It manifested itself in the violent demonstrations by students against their clerical rulers in Iran this year. It almost certainly contributed to the rising numbers of middle-class voters who backed the incumbent governments of Indonesia and India. It shows up in rural Malaysia in richer, emptier villages surrounded by mechanised farms. And everywhere, it is changing traditional family life by enabling women to work and children to be educated. At a time when Malthusian alarms are ringing because of environmental pressures, falling fertility may even provide a measure of reassurance about global population trends. …

Higher standards of living, then, reduce fertility. And lower fertility improves living standards. This is what China’s government says. It is also the view that has emerged from demographic research over the past 20 years.  In the 1980s, population was regarded as relatively unimportant to economic performance. American delegates told a UN conference in 1984 that “population growth is, in and of itself, neither good nor bad; it is a neutral phenomenon.” Recent research suggests otherwise.

Cutting the fertility rate from six to two can help an economy in several ways. First, as fertility falls it changes the structure of the population, increasing the size of the workforce relative to the numbers of children and old people. When fertility is high and a country is young (median age below 20), there are huge numbers of children and the overall dependency ratio is high. When a country is ageing (median age above 40), it again has a high dependency ratio, this time because of old people.

But the switch from one to the other produces a Goldilocks generation. Because fertility is falling, there are relatively few children. Because of high mortality earlier, there are relatively few grandparents. Instead, countries have a bulge of working-age adults. This happened to Europe after the baby boom of 1945-65 and produced les trente glorieuses (30 years of growth). It is happening now in Asia and Latin America. East Asia has done better than Latin America, showing that lower fertility alone does not determine economic success. Eventually developing countries will face the same problems of ageing as Europe and Japan do. But for the moment, Asians and Latinos are enjoying fertility that is neither too hot, nor too cold. According to David Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health, the “demographic dividend” (his term) accounted for a third of East Asian growth in 1965-90.

Slowing fertility has other benefits. By making it easier for women to work, it boosts the size of the labour force. Because there are fewer dependent children and old people, households have more money left for savings, which can be ploughed into investment. Chinese household savings (obviously influenced by many things, not just demography) reached almost 25% of GDP in 2008, helping to finance investment of an unprecedented 40% of GDP. This in turn accounted for practically all the increase in Chinese GDP in the first half of this year.

Lastly, low fertility makes possible a more rapid accumulation of capital per head. To see how, think about what happens to a farm as it is handed down the generations in a country without primogeniture. The more children there are, the more the farm is divided. Eventually, these patches become so tiny they cease to be efficient. …

This link between growth and fertility raises awkward questions. In the 1980s the link was downplayed in reaction to Malthusian alarms of the 1970s, when it was fashionable to argue that population growth had to be reined in because oil and natural resources were running short. So if population does matter after all, does that mean the Malthusians were right?

Not entirely. Neo-Malthusians think the world has too many people. But for most countries, the population questions that matter most are either: do we have enough people to support an ageing society? Or: how can we take advantage of having just the right number for economic growth? It is fair to say that these perceptions are not mutually exclusive. The world might indeed have the right numbers to boost growth and still have too many for the environment. The right response to that, though, would be to curb pollution and try to alter the pattern of growth to make it less resource-intensive, rather than to control population directly.

The reason is that widening replacement-level fertility means population growth is slowing down anyway. A further reduction of fertility would be possible if family planning were spread to the parts of the world which do not yet have it (notably Africa). But that would only reduce the growth in the world’s numbers from 9.2 billion in 2050 to, say, 8.5 billion. To go further would probably require draconian measures, such as sterilisation or one-child policies.

The bad news is that the girls who will give birth to the coming, larger generations have already been born. The good news is that they will want far fewer children than their mothers or grandmothers did.

Networks without borders?

Cloud computing presents challenges for national regulation – both for censorship, accounting, and privacy.  From the Economist Computers without borders:

Data Islandia, a local company, is trying to establish the island as a vault for a growing pile of data that firms must retain in order to comply with all kinds of regulations. It has a compelling pitch. With its cool climate, abundant geothermal energy and secure remoteness, Iceland appears to be a prime location for data archives.As often, however, truth is stranger than fiction. In a way, Data Islandia is erecting borders in the cloud: it intends to store European data according to European regulation and American bits according to American rules. What is more, to keep the data safe during transport, they are picked up with a data scooter (in essence a container filled with disk drives) and taken to Iceland by aeroplane as though fibre-optic links had never been invented.

This illustrates the political tensions that will arise with the cloud. In one way it is the ultimate form of globalisation: vast virtualised computer systems and electronic services know no borders. Yet governments are likely to go to great lengths to avoid losing even more control.

Agricultural trade and poverty

A recent Economist article poses the question Does freer farm trade help poor people? Given the ideological slant of the Economist, it is unsurprising that the article concludes yes. The interesting aspect of the article discusses two World Bank research papers that indicate that the way in which agricultural trade is regulated has major consequences.

The links between trade, food prices and poverty reduction are more subtle. Different types of reform have diverse effects on prices. When countries cut their tariffs on farm goods, their consumers pay lower prices. In contrast, when farm subsidies are slashed, world food prices rise. The lavishness of farm subsidies means that the net effect of fully freeing trade would be to raise prices, by an average of 5.5% for primary farm products and 1.3% for processed goods, according to the World Bank.

These effects are still much smaller than recent food-price spikes, but would they, on balance, help or hurt the poor? In crude terms, food-exporting countries gain in the short term whereas net importers lose. Farmers are better off; those who buy their food fare worse. Although most of the world’s poor live in rural areas, they are not, by and large, net food sellers. A forthcoming study* of nine poor countries by M. Ataman Aksoy and Aylin Isik-Dikmelik, two economists at the World Bank, shows that even in very rural countries, such as Bangladesh and Zambia, only one-fifth of households sell more food than they buy. That suggests the losers may outnumber winners.

But things are not so simple. The authors point out that net food buyers tend to be richer than net sellers, so high food prices, on average, transfer income from richer to poorer households. And prices are not the only route through which poverty is affected. Higher farm income boosts demand for rural labour, increasing wages for landless peasants and others who buy rather than grow their food. Several studies show this income effect can outweigh the initial price effect. Finally, the farm sector itself can grow. Decades of underinvestment in agriculture have left many poor countries reliant on imports: over time that can change.

The World Bank has often argued that the balance of all these factors is likely to be positive. Although freer farm trade—and higher prices—may raise poverty rates in some countries, it will reduce them in more. One much-cited piece of evidence is a study† by Thomas Hertel, Roman Keeney, Maros Ivanic and Alan Winters. This analysis simulated the effect of getting rid of all subsidies and barriers on global prices and trade volumes. It then mapped these results on to detailed household statistics in 15 countries, which between them covered 1 billion people. Fully free trade in farm goods would reduce poverty in 13 countries while raising it in two.

But lately the bank seems to be taking a different line. Robert Zoellick, the bank’s president, claims that the food-price crisis will throw 100m people below the poverty line, undoing seven years of progress. His figure comes from extrapolating the results of a different study** by Mr Ivanic and Will Martin, another World Bank economist. This study analyses the effects of more expensive staple foods on poverty by examining household surveys in nine countries. In seven cases, higher food prices meant more poverty. (Dani Rodrik, a blogging Harvard economist, was one of the first to highlight the tension between these studies.)

In fact, the bank’s results are not as contradictory as they seem. The two studies are based on different sets of countries: only Peru, Zambia and Vietnam appear in both. And the gloomy analysis measures only the effect of pricier staple foods, whereas the other examines freer trade in all farm goods. Such trade brings broader benefits: even if higher prices for staples exacerbate poverty in some countries, at least in the short term, the effect may be outweighed by increased demand for other farm exports, such as processed goods, as rich countries cut tariffs.

These subtleties suggest two conclusions. First, the bank, and others, should beware sweeping generalisations about the impact of food prices on the poor. Second, the nature of trade reform matters. Removing rich-country subsidies on staple goods, the focus of much debate in the Doha round, may be less useful in the fight against poverty than cutting tariffs would be. The food-price crisis has not hurt the case for freer farm trade. But it has shown how important it is to get it right.

These papers only assess trade rather than agricultural practices. I would add that the ecological fit of agriculture to the place in which it is practiced will also have substantial impacts on the potential for a regions ability to escape from poverty. Increases in agricultural production that damages other ecosystem services that are important for local people’s livelihood, such a fisheries, fuelwood, flood regulation, or water quality, can do more damage than good.

Connecting the world

The Economist reviews Mobility and digital media – Nomads at last:

mobile vs internet users…these changes amount to a historic merger, at long last, of two technologies that have already proved revolutionary in their own right. The mobile phone has changed the world by becoming ubiquitous in rich and poor countries alike. The internet has mostly touched rich countries, and rich people in poor countries, but has already changed the way people shop, bank, listen to music, read news and socialise. Now the mobile phone is on course to replace the PC as the primary device for getting online. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 3.3 billion people, more than half the world’s population, now subscribe to a mobile-phone service (see chart 1), so the internet at last looks set to change the whole world.

Food prices rising due increases in meat consumption and biofuels

The Economist (Dec 6th 2007) writes about how global agricultural prices are Cheap no more:

economist on food prices

…what is most remarkable about the present bout of “agflation” is that record prices are being achieved at a time not of scarcity but of abundance. According to the International Grains Council, a trade body based in London, this year’s total cereals crop will be 1.66 billion tonnes, the largest on record and 89m tonnes more than last year’s harvest, another bumper crop. That the biggest grain harvest the world has ever seen is not enough to forestall scarcity prices tells you that something fundamental is affecting the world’s demand for cereals.

Two things, in fact. One is increasing wealth in China and India. This is stoking demand for meat in those countries, in turn boosting the demand for cereals to feed to animals. The use of grains for bread, tortillas and chapattis is linked to the growth of the world’s population. It has been flat for decades, reflecting the slowing of population growth. But demand for meat is tied to economic growth (see chart 1) and global GDP is now in its fifth successive year of expansion at a rate of 4%-plus.

Higher incomes in India and China have made hundreds of millions of people rich enough to afford meat and other foods. In 1985 the average Chinese consumer ate 20kg (44lb) of meat a year; now he eats more than 50kg. China’s appetite for meat may be nearing satiation, but other countries are following behind: in developing countries as a whole, consumption of cereals has been flat since 1980, but demand for meat has doubled.

Not surprisingly, farmers are switching, too: they now feed about 200m-250m more tonnes of grain to their animals than they did 20 years ago. That increase alone accounts for a significant share of the world’s total cereals crop. Calorie for calorie, you need more grain if you eat it transformed into meat than if you eat it as bread: it takes three kilograms of cereals to produce a kilo of pork, eight for a kilo of beef. So a shift in diet is multiplied many times over in the grain markets. Since the late 1980s an inexorable annual increase of 1-2% in the demand for feedgrains has ratcheted up the overall demand for cereals and pushed up prices.

Because this change in diet has been slow and incremental, it cannot explain the dramatic price movements of the past year. The second change can: the rampant demand for ethanol as fuel for American cars. In 2000 around 15m tonnes of America’s maize crop was turned into ethanol; this year the quantity is likely to be around 85m tonnes. America is easily the world’s largest maize exporter—and it now uses more of its maize crop for ethanol than it sells abroad.

Ethanol is the dominant reason for this year’s increase in grain prices. It accounts for the rise in the price of maize because the federal government has in practice waded into the market to mop up about one-third of America’s corn harvest. A big expansion of the ethanol programme in 2005 explains why maize prices started rising in the first place.

Ethanol accounts for some of the rise in the prices of other crops and foods too. Partly this is because maize is fed to animals, which are now more expensive to rear. Partly it is because America’s farmers, eager to take advantage of the biofuels bonanza, went all out to produce maize this year, planting it on land previously devoted to wheat and soyabeans. This year America’s maize harvest will be a jaw-dropping 335m tonnes, beating last year’s by more than a quarter. The increase has been achieved partly at the expense of other food crops.

Guess who loses
According to the World Bank, 3 billion people live in rural areas in developing countries, of whom 2.5 billion are involved in farming. That 3 billion includes three-quarters of the world’s poorest people. So in principle the poor overall should gain from higher farm incomes. In practice many will not. There are large numbers of people who lose more from higher food bills than they gain from higher farm incomes. Exactly how many varies widely from place to place.

Among the losers from higher food prices are big importers. … some of the poorest places in Asia (Bangladesh and Nepal) and Africa (Benin and Niger) also face higher food bills. Developing countries as a whole will spend over $50 billion importing cereals this year, 10% more than last.

In every country, the least well-off consumers are hardest hit when food prices rise. This is true in rich and poor countries alike but the scale in the latter is altogether different. As Gary Becker, a Nobel economics laureate at the University of Chicago, points out, if food prices rise by one-third, they will reduce living standards in rich countries by about 3%, but in very poor ones by over 20%.