- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2001

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and ´80s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now," infamously predicted Paul Ehrlich in "The Population Bomb" in 1968. It didn´t happen, of course. Why? Because plant breeder Norman Borlaug and his colleagues were already nurturing the "Green Revolution" which boosted wheat and rice productivity by more than 100%, thus averting global famine.

Mr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, while Mr. Ehrlich still bedevils the world with his dire predictions of impending famine. But the enormous gains of the Green Revolution are petering out, so maybe Mr. Ehrlich will prove right after all? World population will increase by 2 billion over the next 20 years and food production needs to grow by at least 40% by 2020, says the International Food Policy Research Institute. Perhaps the end is now nigh?

Fortunately humans don´t just stand there, they do something. Environmental writer Richard Manning, at the behest of the McKnight Foundation, has toured the world closely observing the current work of the successors to Mr. Borlaug and reporting his findings in this short smart book, Food´s Frontier: The Next Green Revolution (North Point, $24, 225 pages).

Mr. Manning finds that the Chinese are enthusiastically embracing biotechnology to boost crop productivity. For example, rice stripe virus cuts harvests by as much as 10% annually and is spread by infected brown rice plant hoppers. Chinese researchers are engineering a bacterium that lives naturally in the brown rice plant hopper so that it will vaccinate its insect host against rice stripe virus.

In India, researchers are transferring a gene that resists a fierce pest called pod borers from peanuts and putting it into chickpeas. Chickpeas are a vital source of protein for vegetarian India and yields are typically 0.5 tons per hectare. Researchers hope that the pod borer resistant chickpeas will achieve yields more like France´s 5 tons per hectare.

Biotechnology is not everything. Conventional plant breeding has a big role to play. For example, breeders have crossed commercial potatoes with a wild tuber, the leaves of which essentially act like flypaper, trapping insects so that they starve to death. Farmers in Chile growing these flypaper potatoes get higher yields while cutting their pesticide use in half.

But not everything is going well. Africa is still cause for despair. Mr. Manning found progress slow in Uganda, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe despite the efforts of many talented African researchers. Frustrated, these scientists often give up and leave for the United States where they can make a decent living. War and corruption also obstruct progress.

"One of the things that has impressed me so much and that is so clear in so many developing countries is that the people who are governing the country are rotten through and through, and that´s all there is to it. The laws are to enrich the people in power and nothing more," says Pioneer Seed researcher Don Duvick to Mr. Manning. The author comes to agree and points out that, "One of the basic assumptions of food security work is that government cannot be counted on for help and, in many cases, can be counted on for just the opposite."

The same is true even for governments in developed countries as the European Union´s wrongheaded and selfish fight over biotech crops clearly shows. Mr. Manning makes clear in this insightful book that the next Green Revolution is an information revolution based on biotechnology and real cultural interchange between scientists in their labs and farmers in their fields.


The The New England cod fishery in the Gulf of Maine and the Georges Bank has collapsed. Environmental writer David Dobbs set out to find why and to delve into what is being done to revive the fishery. To bolster his reporting, Mr. Dobbs spent two years volunteering on New England fishing boats and on National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) research vessels, talked a lot with fed-up fishermen and puzzled scientists, and attended tense meetings of the New England Fishery Management Council, the regulatory body that controls the fishery which is the flash point between fishers and scientists.

As a result, Mr. Dobbs has written a fascinating book, The Great Gulf: Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World´s Greatest Fishery (Island Press, $24.95, 200 pages.), that has one big flaw.

So why did the fishery collapse? The simple answer is too many fishers chasing too few fish. In the 1970s, the United States expanded its coastal limits to 200 miles offshore and chased foreign trawlers away. This allowed an already stressed cod fishery to rebound. So far so good. Then the federal government offered subsidized loans for fishing boats which encouraged a dramatic expansion in the domestic fleet to 1,200 boats, more than twice as many as the cod fishery could support.

In an effort to control and protect the fisheries, the feds set up regional management councils composed of government bureaucrats, scientists, and industry representatives. These councils are supposed to devise regulations to prevent overfishing by taking into account scientific estimates of how big the fish stocks are. If it was not obvious before, it seems well established now that a regulatory body composed of roughly equal numbers of regulators and industry representatives will have trouble acting either boldly or nimbly, concludes Mr. Dobbs.

The scientists at the NMFS knew that the cod fishery was being overfished, but the management council, bowing to pressure from the cash-strapped fishers, nevertheless set catch limits unsustainably high. Mr. Dobbs does a good job of explaining the differences in perception and the conflicts between scientists, regulators and fishers while avoiding the good guys vs. bad guys typology that has characterized so much of the reporting on New England fisheries in the past decade.

Now to the book´s one big flaw. Mr. Dobbs, like the fishers, scientists and the regulators he so ably describes, is apparently unable to step back and see what the root of the overfishing problem is. The cod fishery is suffering from what economists call the tragedy of the commons. In an open access commons, no one owns the resource, therefore no one has an incentive to protect it. In fact, they have every incentive to use it up now, because if they leave some fish in the sea, other fishers will simply take them and get all the benefits.

There are two strategies for managing a commons, one is political regulation which, as Mr. Dobbs has well documented, does not work. The other strategy is privatization in which people are made owners of the resource and thereby gain incentives to protect and nurture it. And as the robust fisheries of New Zealand and Iceland have shown, privatizing fisheries works.

Privatization is not without pain; some fishers will be bought out and will have to find other work, but in the long run it does protect and enhance fisheries. It´s a pity for the cod and the communities that depend on the cod that none of the fishers, the regulators nor the scientists Mr. Dobbs writes about are apparently doing much thinking outside of the regulatory box in which they´ve found themselves confined.


Ronald Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason magazine and editor of Earth Report 2000 (McGraw-Hill).

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