▪ Crash of Civilizations

The obvious driver of the huge issues raised by Lester Brown in “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?” is overpopulation. Most rational people will agree that this planet does have a limit to the population of humans it can support. Sooner or later we will reach that limit, and then the natural world will abruptly step in and make a major correction through famine, disease and result-ing conflict.

“Top it off and let it idle”
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As usual, the real problem reverts to money. Our current socioeconomic system is predicated on the idea of unlimited economic growth. That requires unlimited population growth. In the late 1970s and early 1980s we had achieved zero population growth. That was not good for business, and corporate America began using the media to steer our cultural consciousness back to large families, a trend that continues today. The only way to save the human race is to reduce our numbers, and the only way to do that is to restructure our entire socioeconomic system.

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Brown begins his rant by insisting that mankind faces imminent food shortages. But based on the actual statistics, this is complete balderdash. Over the past 50 years grain production worldwide has grown only faster than population. On a per capita basis, the United Nation reports, annual grain yields are up 40 percent during the past five decades. Moreover, millions of hectares of fallow alluvial (uncultivated and fertile) land exist globally that could be exploited for crop production, especially via the spread of drip irrigation.

U.S. crop yields average approximately 10 tons per hectare as a result largely of mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified seeds, and in some instances irrigation. The comparable figure in all of Asia and Latin America is only about three tons per hectare, leaving massive potential for additional increases in global agricultural output.

Emil Wagner
Malvern, Pa.

BROWN REPLIES:It is true that grain production has expanded faster than population, from 249 kilograms per person in 1950 to 342 kilograms per person in 1984. But since then, it has fallen to an estimated 320 kilograms per person for this year.

As to Wagner’s data on yields, U.S. corn yields an average of 10 tons per hectare, but U.S. wheat yields are under three tons per hectare.

The bottom line is that the number of hungry and malnourished people in the world, which was declining historically, bottomed out around 2000 at just more than 800 million. That figure is now approaching one billion and is projected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hit 1.2 billion within the next decade.

As to the vast potential for expanding production, once grain yields have doubled or tripled, as they have already done in much of the developing world, including China and India, it then becomes much more difficult to expand production. The billion people who are chronically hungry can only wish that the potential for expanding world food production is as vast and as simple as Wagner claims it to be.

▪ Deal or No Deal

In a phrase that has become fashionable in the past few months, as new government officials criticize the policies of their predecessors, Jeffrey D. Sachs’s column rests on a “false choice.”

The column accurately predicts that to pay for dramatically enhanced spending by the U.S. government under the spending goals laid out by the new administration, it will be necessary to ramp up the percentage of GDP that the government absorbs through taxes. He predicts that these taxes will come from increased taxes on “the rich”—presumably anyone who makes more than the particular speaker—plus regressive taxes such as a national sales tax or VAT.

Sachs observes that in recent decades, total U.S. federal, state and local taxes have consumed about 33 percent of gross domestic product as compared with average European tax burdens of about 45 percent of GDP. He concludes that we must match European tax levels to avoid funding the proposed budget deficits with crushing debt.

The “false choice” lies in assuming that we must (and should) choose between incurring unsustainable debt and massively increasing taxes to European levels. The alternative way, of course, is to moderate the growth of spending. This policy option escapes mention, but it should not. One consequence of the substantially higher tax burden that many European countries have imposed is that their economies have tended to be more sluggish and less dynamic than the U.S. economy and that they have paid the price in generally higher rates of unemployment and slower technological innovation.

Philip Allen Lacovara
Sanibel, Fla.

▪ Pharma Liabilities

In “Legal Side Effects” [Updates], Kate Wilcox claimed that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision left drug companies “wide open for lawsuits.” The decision upheld laws that are much needed, especially in light of the long-standing practice of pharmaceutical companies to sponsor and pay for “research” of the drugs they manufacture in order to market the drugs’ positive effects while concealing their dangerous side effects in patients. The court’s decision upholds important constitutional rights afforded to all citizens and should be welcomed by a journal that promotes scientific study.

John Mininno
Mininno Law Office
Collingswood, N.J.

THE EDITORS REPLY: Updates is part of the magazine's news coverage, not an editorial. Thus, Wilcox was not expressing her personal opinion nor that of Scientific American.