Friday, December 27, 2019

Vaclav Smil: "Good Eats"

We usually introduce the good Professor with some version of "Meet The Guy Who Taught Bill Gates About Energy" or "Vaclav Smil: Planet of the Cows": 
Our readers may know Mr. Smil as a big deal in the Thinking-about-Energy biz. Here he is thinking about bovines....

From Inference Review:
Twenty-first-century affluent societies have a schizophrenic approach to food, a combination of neglect and preoccupation. Neglect is well documented. Google’s Ngram Viewer, quantifying the appearance of specific words in English-language books published between 1800 and 2008, shows the following relative maximum frequencies for topics of public interest: peaks of up to 0.02% for both “population” and “energy,” only half as much for “environment” and “economy” (0.01%), a mere 0.004% for “agriculture,” and 0.001% for “nutrition.”1 While discussion of the environment peaked around the year 2000, concerns about energy and population peaked some 40 years ago. Those about agriculture have gone downhill ever since the 1960s.

An outright irrational perspective justifying this neglect comes from the economists, who point out that agriculture is now a marginal sector that contributes little to gross domestic product in modern societies. For example, in 2016, farm production accounted for 0.7% of the United States’ GDP.2 My suggestion: just let them live off the output of the most important sector, which now accounts for more than 20% of GDP, the category labeled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis as “finance, insurance, real estate, rental, and leasing.” Bon appétit!

Food output in affluent societies, which are already producing vastly more food than they can consume, keeps on rising. Advertising for food shows no signs of decline. And preoccupation with the consequences arising from a surfeit of food—ubiquitous dieting and obesity—or from consuming specific nutrients—fats, sugars, vitamins—is reaching new highs. These highs are in no small part aided by the many unscrupulous endorsements of outrageous diets, which range from pseudo-Paleolithic carnivory to uncompromising veganism, by one-time Hollywood actresses and Oz-like publicity-hungry physicians.

Of course, our society’s collective lack of concern about food production is a perfect testimony to the enormous achievements that have resulted from more than a century of agricultural advances. Land and labor have been made more productive through innovations in plant breeding, including improved cultivars and genetically modified crops, and through agronomic, technical, and managerial advances ranging from the introduction of crop rotations to the use of field machinery, synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers, and other agrochemicals. In 1800, a New England farmer, with his two oxen, wooden plow, brush harrows, sickles, and flails, had to invest more than seven minutes of labor to produce a kilogram of wheat that would make two small loaves of whole wheat bread.3 By the year 2000, better cultivars, fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization reduced that time to less than six seconds. During the second half of the twentieth century, average growth of US agricultural productivity had surpassed that of manufacturing productivity.4

Such advances were replicated in the cultivation of other crops and in the production of meat, eggs, and dairy products. The unprecedented availability of high-quality foods resulted in a nutritional transition, in which many positive outcomes were joined by a few worrisome consequences. No outcomes have been more welcome than the elimination of famine, the drastic reduction of undernutrition, and the declining share of disposable income spent on food. Unfortunately, agriculture’s great productivity has been accompanied by increased food waste—typically one-third or even two-fifths of all produced food—as well as by excessive eating, unhealthy diets, and rising obesity. Some foods and nutrients have been rightly implicated in these shifts, but the best evidence shows that others have been undeservedly maligned.

Ending Famines and Reducing Undernutrition
Lists of modern advances are dominated by technical inventions. In a poll of a representative sample of Western intellectuals, ending famines would likely not be mentioned among the first half-dozen most important accomplishments in the modern world. Such a list would almost certainly include computers, mobile phones, and the internet.

In all of Europe except Russia, threats of recurrent famine were eliminated during the early stages of agricultural transition.5 The Irish famine of 1845–49 was the last event that could be attributed in a large degree to failed harvests.6 Russia’s last peacetime famine was in 1891–92. The major famines in the USSR, between 1921 and 1923 along the Volga, in the Ukrainian Holodomor between 1932 and 1933, and in the summer of 1947, were not due to any inherent inability to produce enough food, but were the result of violent conflicts and destructive policy decisions, including Joseph Stalin’s deliberate attempt to starve the Ukrainian population into submission.7 The months of severe malnutrition and famine in western provinces of the Netherlands, Hongerwinter between October 1944 and May 1945, were caused by the Nazi blockade of food shipments.8.