Forever wrong

My grandfather was the gloomiest man I ever knew.  When he imagined the future, it was rife with loss and want.  When he looked on his grandchildren playing in the yard, he pictured them brain-damaged after falling and cracking their heads on the ground.  None of these things happened.  My grandfather lived to a ripe old age, had four healthy sons and many happy grandchildren, and remained financially independent to his last day.

In the end, of course, he died.  Only in this cosmic sense was his dismal outlook proven true.

Lester Brown appears to be the food policy equivalent of my grandfather.  Brown’s recent Scientific American piece, “Could food shortages bring down civilization?”, caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  First, the author betrayed a surprising but absolute ignorance of the marketplace.  Second, he was no scientist.  He was a missionary preaching a cause.  His appearance in Scientific American reflected a new tendency among scientists and scientific journals to tell the rest of us how to behave.

Like my poor grandfather, Brown is forever predicting the worst, and has been proven forever wrong.  Or, as Ronald Bailey puts it in this Reason article, “Brown has been a prominent and perennial predictor of global famine for more than 45 years.  Why should we believe him now?”

For instance, back in 1965, when Brown was a young bureaucrat in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he declared, “the food problem emerging in the less-developing regions may be one of the most nearly insoluble problems facing man over the next few decades.”

In 1974, Brown maintained that farmers “can no longer keep up with rising demand; thus the outlook is for chronic scarcities and rising prices.”

In 1981, Brown stated that “global food insecurity is increasing,” and further claimed that “the slim excess of growth in food production over population is narrowing.”

In 1989, Brown contended that “population growth is exceeding the farmer’s ability to keep up,” concluding that, “our oldest enemy, hunger, is again at the door.”

In 1995, Brown starkly warned, “Humanity’s greatest challenge may soon be just making it to the next harvest.”

In 1997, Brown again proclaimed, “Food scarcity will be the defining issue of the new era now unfolding.”

But this time it’s different, right? After all, Brown claims that “when the 2008 harvest began, world carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) were at 62 days of consumption, a near record low.”

But Brown has played this game before with world grain stocks. As the folks at the pro-life Population Research Institute (PRI) report, Brown claimed in 1974 that there were only 26 days of grain reserves left, but later he upped that number to 61 days. In 1976, reserves were supposed to have fallen to just 31 days, but again Brown raised that number in 1988 to 79 days. In 1980, only a 40-day supply was allegedly on hand, but a few years later he changed that estimate to 71 days.

The PRI analysts noted that Brown has repeatedly issued differing figures for 1974: 26 or 27 days (1974); 33 days (1975); 40 days (1981); 43 days (1987); and 61 days (1988). In 2004, Brown claimed that the world’s grain reserves had fallen to only 59 days of consumption, the lowest level in 30 years.

In any case, Brown must know that the world’s farmers produced a bumper crop last year. Stocks of wheat are at a six-year high and increases in other stocks of grains are not far off. This jump in reserves is not at all surprising considering the steep run-up in grain prices last year, which encouraged farmers around the world to plant more crops. By citing pre-2008 harvest reserves, Brown evidently hopes to frighten gullible Scientific American readers into thinking that the world’s food situation is really desperate this time.

Just like my grandfather, Brown will be confirmed in his gloomy outlook at the end of days.  The sun will grow to gobble up the earth, and food growing, not to mention human life, will become untenable.  That will occur, according to one estimate, in 7.6 billion years.

In the non-apocalyptic present, the burden of shame falls less on Brown than on Scientific American.  The former is, in Bailey’s words, an “old charlatan.”  That the journal chose to open its pages to someone of that ilk should tell us a lot about the moral and political aspirations of its editors.



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