Wisdom from an Agricultural Economist

Given that the academic year is about to start, permit me to supply you with a short course on what is new in agricultural economics.   Consider reading  this piece by NCSU’s Michael Roberts.   You will see a touch of Malthus here as he analyzes food production in the face of climate change.   While  rising food prices in the developing world will raise farmer incomes, he is concerned about the urban poor’s quality of life. 

How can this group be protected?  Global carbon mitigation would be great but don’t count on it.  A more feasible “solution” is more free trade. If the urban poor can find jobs in export industries, then their incomes will rise.  National population growth slows in urbanizing nations because of women’s labor market opportunities in the market place.   Reducing world poverty and slowing world population growth will reduce the poor’s exposure to climate shocks.  International free trade in agricultural goods lowers the price of food for importing  nations and this raises the standard of living of the LDC urban poor.     International migration (another free trade policy) will also offer another margin of adjustment.   


Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

7 thoughts on “Wisdom from an Agricultural Economist”

  1. A more feasible solution is recognizing that Malthus was probably right and figuring out how to limit the population of the planet without the totalitarian methods of China.

  2. Fortunately, it turns out that in societies in which both education and modern contraceptive technologies are readily available to women, the rate of population growth tends to slow quite nicely.

    Unfortunately, patriarchy, blinkered religiosity, and ignorance remain rife.

  3. Whatever we do, let’s not offer the poor any public assistance, so that they can actually eat while the free market is working its magic. (If you think about it, such assistance, which allows the poor to maintain the nutritional status necessary for education, training and initial labor, is an extraordinarily good investment in GDP.)

  4. To call Malthus wrong after only a couple hundred years is hubris at its worst. Exponential processes NEVER go on forever. The Green revolution depended on nitrogen based fertilizer which is an incredibly energy intensive process. It’s true that more advanced countries have lower fertility but if you plot consumption, I think it actually rises as fast or faster than undeveloped countries. 1000 years is a long time for humans and a very, very, very, very, very short time for a species. Remember that one of the reasons that humans are so remarkably genetically similar is that at one time we almost died off completely.

  5. I would be more open to “free” trade as a solution as soon as we reduce asymmetric information such that agents can calculate ALL Pareto optima, including the existence value of species and ecosystems. Because “free” trade schemes in a world of 8.5+ Bn people means more forest cut down, more marginal land plowed, more water diverted. If there is any water left in the Himalaya in 2050 after the glaciers shrink by 25-40%.

    Nonetheless, we’ve known about these problems for some time, and for the amount of land the “free” traders will need to feed 8.5+ Bn people, Tilman and others discussed this Nature in 2002, and little if any has changed since then. That is: we need another agricultural revolution, one that makes most cereals much more productive without overapplication of N and overpumping of groundwater like the last one, and also one that makes transportation much cheaper, as water shortages will mean more shipments of grain to replace water.

  6. If Malthus were (ever, finally) right, it would break quite a long losing streak.

    If you consider the amount of time since the ~start of the agrarian age, it is very little time at all. If you factor in the human population explosion with respect to the agrarian age, it is even less time. So I don’t really know what the argument is, presuming it is an argument at all instead of a boilerplate talking point.

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